A sweet storybook

Review by Sean McQuaid

The Gift of the Magi and Other Festive Stories to Warm the Heart
Watermark Theatre, North Rustico
December 15, 2023

I’ve always liked holiday variety packs: the late, great Life Savers Sweet Storybooks, stuffed with a dozen different rolls of candy in their heyday; vintage DC Comics Christmas anthologies starring Batman, Sandman and other luminaries; the old Consumers Distributing holiday catalog multi-packs of Star Wars figures; and classic anthology films like O. Henry’s Full House (1952), adapting O. Henry short stories, most with some wintry or yuletide content. 

Watermark Theatre has just compiled its own Sweet Storybook of sorts: The Gift of the Magi and Other Festive Stories to Warm the Heart, co-written by Alan Kinsella and Watermark Artistic Director Robert Tsonos and directed by Kinsella, a new theatrical anthology adapting eight classic Christmas texts, including one also featured in that 1952 O. Henry movie, beloved 1905 short story “The Gift of the Magi.” 

Watermark’s jampacked anthology also includes adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tales “The Fir Tree” (1844) and “The Little Match Girl” (1845); Richmal Crompton’s short story “The Christmas Present” (1922); A.A. Milne’s satirical essay “A Hint for Next Christmas” (1920); Lucy Maud Montgomery’s short story “Christmas at Red Butte” (1909); Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823); and Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift” (1943), famously made into a film as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). 

An added bonus: seasonal carols such as “Auld Lang Syne,” “Deck the Halls,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Jingle Bells,” “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland,” some of them conducted as audience sing-alongs. With so many tales and tunes, it’s a Christmas miracle that Kinsella and Tsonos pack it all into one compact stage show. 

The adapters’ contributions to the text include original prologue/epilogue sequences starring two singing buskers hustling for spare change; they set up the play’s version of “Gift of the Magi” via chance encounters with that story’s main characters, a young couple willing to sacrifice their prize possessions to get each other the perfect Christmas gifts. 

The buskers pop up in other stories, too—one of them finding what’s left of Andersen’s little match girl is an effectively poignant moment—but they’re an intermittent presence, sometimes supplanted by other new creations like the surly kid and oddball department store elf who frame Andersen’s fir tree tale, or the weary street vendor and eccentric customer who transform Milne’s holiday shopping commentary into a quirky dialogue. It’s all a bit scattered but it largely hangs together, often funny and sometimes moving. The individual vignettes are mostly effective, though “The Greatest Gift” feels rushed, especially by comparison to its sprawling cinematic counterpart. 

Set/costume designer Kelly Caseley’s cartoony, rough-hewn background Christmas trees seem a bit like sketchy refugees from A Charlie Brown Christmas (also echoed in the play’s music a time or two), but her finest contribution here is the stage’s transforming centerpiece, a small tree-shaped structure which reveals several different scenes as it revolves, aiding the show’s many changes of setting. 

Even greater assets are the show’s stars, Kitbag Theatre founders Jacob Hemphill and Rebecca Parent, who between the two of them play all of the show’s 20+ roles, each appearing as multiple characters in some scenes, making all their parts vividly distinctive with changing voices, morphing body language and more. Hemphill is perhaps too often shouty for such an intimate venue, but both play a superbly wide range of comedic and dramatic parts over the course of the night, further enriched by the duo’s sweet singing skills, while director Kinsella and stage manager Kate Hagemeyer keep the show’s many ever-shifting components moving smoothly all the way to the evening’s eventual storybook ending.