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                        Dad’s Garage / Horizon Theatre

(Bias Alert:  I have worked with writer – and Atlanta treasure – Topher Payne several times and tend to view his work through approval-tinted glasses.)


I have to confess to being a Hallmark movie addict.


I blame Topher Payne.  


Way back in 2016, he wrote a Hallmark movie called My Summer Prince, which I absolutely adored, as I do most of his scripts (*).  My wife and I started watching these movies (well, she’d been watching them for years before I drank the kool-aid), and now we have over twenty backed up on our DVR.  Yes, the put-down jokes have a basis in truth – you can predict (almost) every movie from beginning to end (Where’s the kiss in the gazebo?  Why isn’t it snowing on them?), and this week’s episode of Frasier did a wonderfully affectionate wallow in Hallmark-love.  But that does NOT undermine the skill that goes into making them, and the sheer pleasure we get in watching them.  They are more a source of comfortable affection than aesthetic appreciation or, conversely, of hoity-toity disdain.

 Which is to say, they are a hotbed of inspiration for improv comedy.  Back in the pandemic years, Dad’s Garage streamed an improv “movie” created by and narrated by Mr. Payne and it was an equal delight for those who hate the oeuvre and those who love it.  Now, welcome to its live-in-theatre descendant, Y’allmark Christmas: An Improvised Holiday “Movie.”

It’s actually a tad pointless to write about this piece.  After all, the plot changes for every performance, the characters change for every performance, and the performances (probably) and performers (definitely) change for every performance.  How can what I saw last night have any relevance whatsoever to what you will (or at least should) see in subsequent performances?


But, since my writings are the dictionary definition of “pointless,” I just may be the perfect pundit to make the attempt.


Since My Summer Prince, Topher Payne has written several Made-for-Hallmark movies (in addition to his prodigious theatre output), some of them actual Christmas movies, and, although they are of a higher quality (in my humble and biased opinion) than Hallmark’s standard comfort food, they are still subject to an apparently cast-in-stone rule book and are therefore ripe for parody.  Since Mr. Payne (probably) wants to keep his place in the Hallmark writer’s stable, any parody has to walk a tightrope between affection and, well, bemused affection. 


As a preamble to your experience, Mr. Payne asks us several pertinent questions, in this case, “What was the name of the first person to break your heart, what was your first car, where did your parents shop for Christmas, etc etc etc which may (or may not) find their way into that evening’s show.  Given this “Mad-Libs” approach – a traditional favorite of improv artists since time immemorial (I know I can’t remember when this all started) -- it is only appropriate that my plot summary follow a similar format.


{Trendy Female Name} is a {Trendy Occupation} in {Trendy Big City}.  Because of {Trendy Family Crisis} she must neglect her duties JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS to travel to {Fictional Small Town or Country}.  She encounters {Meet Cute Rom-Com Contrivance} {Trendy Male Name}, a {Childhood Friend / High School Boyfriend / Nemesis / Stranger / Prince} who works as a {Prince or Trendy Blue-collar Occupation – the only choices available}.  They each have a {Quirky Best Friend / Quirky Relative / Quirky Servant / Quirky Pet} and everything builds to a {Small Town / Country Event} during which true love wins out, cynicism dies ignominiously, and all is made complete in a very non-denominational secular holiday celebration of joy and romance. Usually in a gazebo. Or in the woods while it snows.


Each performance features three rotating cast members and a guest artist, all playing multiple roles (and multiple genders), often having to “vamp” to make those costume and character changes (not always) work.  Mr. Payne floats throughout, setting up the plot, tossing out improv curve-balls, and being the “Voice of the Network,” a voice with which he’s no doubt grown quite familiar.


As happens with most improv pieces, there are “hits” and there are “misses,” there are costume malfunctions and there are nods-and-winks through the fourth wall – “Oh, I must have left my crown in the other coat” sort of thing.  It’s all very funny, even silly, and last night, the gags that landed far outnumbered the ones that fell flat with a smelly splut.  And, to the benefit of Mr. Payne’s future endeavors, there is an air of affection over the whole production that never comes across as ridicule {Trendy Male Name}’s occupation as a Prince and aspiring Surfer notwithstanding.


Last night’s guest artist was Atlanta gem Shelly McCook, who played the heroine’s mother and the queen of Gingerbreadia (don’t ask) among others.  She was joined by Karen Ceesay as marine biologist Cindy Pinto (among others), Joshua Quinn (I think) as Prince Marshall Fields, and the always reliable Gina Rickicki as “Papa Pinto) (among others).  Other audiences will see the talents of Abel Arias, Matt Horgan, and Whitney Millsap.


Last night’s cast were all very adept improv artists and meet with equanimity (and some actual grace) any absurdity Mr. Payne tossed their way.   And Mr. Payne brings all his wry wit to his role, obviously enjoying himself immensely.


So, should you try to catch Y’allmark Christmas: An Improvised Holiday “Movie?”  I really think you should, but I have no idea what you will actually see when you do.  Although, after proofreading all the above, I daresay I just may have an inkling or two as to what you should expect.  Even if you don’t have to ponder the veracity of 72-year-old dolphins and their pink foreign brethren.   Or wonder if Halle Berry created her name in honor of Christmas.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to watch at least two more Hallmark movies before midnight!

     -- Brad Rudy (    @bk_rudy   #YallmarkChristmas   #HorizonTheatre   #DadsGarage)


*   Mr. Payne has published a number of his scripts, and they are available on Amazon.  I did buy a complete set even though I have other copies of them, most of which carry lighting notes and cues.  I did this for support, and not (just) because he quotes me on the back covers of more than one.  #QuoteWhoreAlert

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