Christmas in Charlestowne, 1782
Actors’ Theatre of South Carolina
Through Dec. 31
Buxton’s East Bay Theatre
184 East Bay Street
The Actors’ Theatre of South Carolina is presenting a rarity: a show that’s traditional yet gutsy too. Christmas in Charlestowne, 1782, while not a wholly terrific production, is much more than one of those mere history plays that you had to sit through as a child on a field trip.
The play’s title clues you in to the setting. Sisters Battina (Hailey Wist) and Charlotte (Nancy Magathan) are trying to put their tavern back together after it was ravished by the “lobsterbacks” (the British). There’s no fourth wall here: early on Charlotte introduces the audience to Battina as a weary crowd who need to come in from the cold. The pair may not have food or drink to dispense, but we can at least stick around for a little while and sing carols with them in celebration. The British have just left the city, and the sisters are happy to share many tales from the occupation.
We hear about Charlotte’s love, Frederick, who’s been away with his regiment fighting the Brits; the sisters’ uncle who gave the English a piece of his mind as they left the city; and why Charleston is called“the holy city”(it’s not the steeples). We also hear a particularly fascinating tale about Charleston heroine Rebecca Motte, who helped Francis Marion in driving the Brits out of her house.
Playwrights and ATSC founders Chris Weatherhead and Clarence Felder weave the stories into the sisters’ narrative well. The carols are interspersed throughout the play — at times they’re brought in to alleviate Charlotte’s lovesick sadness, and at others to celebrate Charleston’s freedom, and to celebrate Christmas, of course.
Weatherhead, who also directs, utilizes the tiny stage well. Wist and Magathan move around the space naturally; the staging is never stagnant, artificial, or forced.
Forty-five minutes is a good length for this piece; any longer and it might have become boring or dry. And the way the company is presenting history is well done; Wist and Magathan are great natural storytellers. Charlotte talks and Battina interrupts, wide-eyed, in excitement to finish the story herself. They have wonderful energy and commitment and work hard to draw the audience into the premise.
What isn’t good is the ticket price. Sixteen bucks is a lot of money, especially at Christmastime, when people are buying presents and gas still costs more than two bucks a gallon. Also, a sizeable portion of the 45-minute play is taken up with the “interactive” carol-singing.
Maybe the audience would be in more of a participatory mood if, in every instance of caroling, the house lights didn’t come up and shine in the audience’s eyes like they were teenagers caught fooling around in the back seat of a car.
If you have holiday guests from out of town, this is a good play to take them to. It’s also a well-disguised history lesson for kids (edu-tainment at its best), who would probably enjoy the high energy, the singing, and the animated personalities of the performers.