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This week, thoughts on three holiday shows-and one in-your-face alternative.

"This Wonderful Life" features actor Jerry Richardson as, well, everyone in Bedford Falls. This minimalist holiday
clocking in at about 70 minutes, certainly doesn’t waste any time. But it also doesn’t add much to our experience, understanding,
or appreciation of "It’s a Wonderful Life," the cinematic cultural touchstone that is mandatory viewing this time
of year.

Whether on stage or on screen, "It’s a Wonderful Life" is a great story that resonates even after all these years.
And another
sort of play might have explored that in more depth. While few of us can identify too closely with the characters of Scrooge
or Clara (the two holiday stage icons seen just about everywhere else these days), who among us hasn’t wondered if we have
made the most of our seemingly ordinary lives? Who hasn’t found that pocket of despair or questioned whether our impact on
the world ultimately has been positive or negative? Who among us isn’t, in some way, George Bailey?

Playwright Steve Murray retells the tale cleanly — putting a few asides into his actor’s mouth ("Have you ever noticed
how much
the story is about money?" Well, duh.) but nothing very resonant or insightful. Still, being told a familiar story can
a satisfying enough experience without blazing any new trail.

When you hear it yet again, it’s easy to keep jumping ahead mentally, wondering how Richardson is going to handle the Charleston
scene that leads into the swimming pool, the run on the bank, the disappearance of the money, the jumping from the bridge,
etc. Some musicals offer sing-along versions, but here you might find yourself tempted to speak along.

Richardson handles it all ably. And to say he isn’t Jimmy Stewart (or, for that matter, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore) isn’t
really fair.

The ending of the show is moving but, come on, this is "It’s a Wonderful Life." The ending would be moving if it
were performed
by Paulie Shore.

Lighting, set design and the sole costume are all what you would want from a professional staging of this exercise. And as
a diversion, it’s a very pleasant one. But the memory of this ephemeral play was quickly replaced in my mind with that wonderful
movie. I left looking forward to seeing it again this holiday season.

Maybe that’s the play’s rather modest point.

I shouldn’t have waited so long to catch "On Thin ice: A Very Phoenix Xmas 3" (which ran through Dec. 20) but memories
last year’s thud of a production kept this new edition from placing high on my must-see list.

The format was roughly the same as it was for past installments: Local playwrights and songwriters were asked to submit irreverent
holiday-related material, which was then packaged into an evening of off-center holiday entertainment. But this year, there
seemed to be a stronger vision behind the selection and a clearer directorial hand. Sure, there were still duds (a film segment
hit the wall) and sketches that needed tightening (including the opening, "Balls" in which the actors played ornaments)
the overall evening worked. I’d argue that a big reason for that is the absence of straight-up spoofery in favor of more character-driven
pieces. The show didn’t feel desperate for laughs — which made the laughs more frequent.

Highlights included a tap-dance take on "’Twas the Night Before Christmas" and a know-just-when-to-quit "Christmas
at Amy
Wine’s House." Also entertaining were a series of seeing-the-joke-coming-but-so-what "Inappropriate Letters to Santa
and a terrific monologue by Richard Furlong titled "The Santa Sentence," made all the better by Michael Shelton’s
performance. The scatological "Poodolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" proved much funnier than the premise (you figure
it out)
would imply. And the last number, the melancholy, Red Key Tavern-set "That Time of the Year" (words and music by
Tim Brickley
and David Rheins) was just right, pointing to a sophistication that, balanced with the silliness, leads me to be hopeful for
the future. The inevitable "Very Phoenix Xmas 4" will be near the top of next year’s holiday theatrical shopping

As the holiday season approached again, I wondered if I had perhaps overpraised Actors Theatre of Indiana’s 2007 production
of "A Year with Frog and Toad." A ribbiting revisit to the too-brief run of the show this year (it closed Dec. 21)
that, if anything, I didn’t praise it enough.

This time, actors Bradley Reynolds and Don Farrell were even more fused to their amphibious alter egos. The simple, entendre-free
musical grew stronger from my familiarity with it. The songs were more charming. The modest adventures more evocative. And
this time I could better appreciate the committed contributions of the trio of supporting performances and the crystal clear

Is it too much to ask for a 2009 return? It truly makes me sad to think of a year without "Frog and Toad."

For a change of pace from all of the holiday fare, I trekked to the Bloomington Playwrights Project for a late-night look
at its annual "Sex/Death" show. (How’s that for counterprogramming?)

Like "A Very Phoenix Xmas," the lineup for this show consists of selected short plays by submitting playwrights.
Unlike "Xmas,"
it’s not offered as a main stage production. The show, which ran through Dec. 17, was staged at 10 p.m. with a mere $5 ticket
charge (free to BPP mainstage subscribers). As such, the audience was enthusiastic and generous to the threadbare production
and more forgiving of rough spots than they might otherwise be.

Given the nature of the dual — and sometimes overlapping — title themes for the show, I was surprised to see how tame

and straight — most
of the material was. And maybe I’m just immunized from controversy, but the only offense I took at "Sex/Death 2008"
was at
the ultimately pointless final piece, "Thanksgiving," which posited a tense scene between a mysterious man and his
pick-up. Unfortunately it drifted into third-rate horror cliches.

The strongest of the pieces were written for two actors. In "Le Petit Mort," by Bethany Barber, a pair of lovers
process the
"little death" one experienced. The resulting pillow talk felt both funny and true to the characters. In Mark Kingsbury’s
"Street Corner," a woman’s attempt to lose her virginity before dying proved oddly moving. And Rebecca Martin’s
Routine" hilariously — and simply — recounts a sexual encounter between a couple too immersed in their routines
bother actually

The talented — and occasionally nude — cast went a long way toward making even the lesser material palatable.

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