An apt subtitle for An Axemas Story at the Players Theatre could be The Secret Sex Life of Trees. It is so obsessed with the coital activity of the residents of an anthropomorphic pine forest that the threat of being chopped down seems to be a secondary concern.
Written by Anthony De Angelis (music), Patrick Spencer (lyrics) and Charlie O’Leary (book), Axemas is a Christmas fable with some bizarre, albeit original, material performed by an enthusiastic cast of nine, most taking on multiple roles.
The actors wear little trees on their head—whether provided by Stephanie Fisher (costumes) or Lauren Barber (scenic & prop design)—isn’t clear, but the end result is clever. The actual scenery consists of several cardboard pine trees and a translucent plastic curtain for exits and entrances plus a table off to the side from which the narrator, Grandpa (John Jeffords, funny in an off-handed way) introduces the audience to the story beginning with the axing of Tree Zero. Small Paulette (Isabel Julazaden, cute and good at precocity) kibitzes and is forced by Grandpa to join the show all the while continuing her withering appraisal of the writing.
The central character around whom the plot revolves is Small Paul (Chris Trombetta, eager and energetic), whose size precludes his participation in holiday traditions, all of which are, bizarrely, Christian in nature. In fact, all the “trees” self-define as Christian. Small Paul prays for shinier needles and height.
Small Paul’s nemesis is the bully Buck (Alex Canty, properly macho) and his sidekick Chuck (Atticus Shaindlin, holding his own as a schlemiel. They verbally and physically abuse Small Paul.
The music begins with “Countin’ Down the Days ‘Til Christmas,” the trees’ enthusiastic welcome to “the day Treesus Jesus” was born. They extol Farmer Todd (Jeffords, again) whose monthly pruning is a religious experience for the trees.
After that, the trees attend a high school graduation led by the principal, Mrs. Fraisier (Jillian Soares, showing great flexibility in several roles), marked by the song “O’ Balsam High,” continuing the arbor metaphor.
Sex is on the agenda in “Log Jammin’” which is full of leering double entendres.
There’s a weird Bingo game (“Bingo Night”) and even some actual Christmas-y numbers: “When Christmas Come Along,” “The Christmas Pageant” and “Christmas Isn’t Christmas,” the latter sung by three families with different points of view.
Noel (Julazadeh in the role Grandpa forced her to perform) is Small Paul’s only solace when she croons her advice: “It’s Up to You.”
The surreal mishmash of a plot includes forest animals and even a dolphin who sing along with Noel and Small Paul, trying to keep things upbeat.
Clearly this is not your parents’ holiday extravaganza, but a hip, sometimes abrasive, take on holiday celebrations from the original point of view of the trees that decorate so many homes.
Director and choreographer Mackenna Goodrich assembled an imaginative production out of bits and pieces. He integrates the songs, all clever, into the action and adds some interesting theatrical touches such as the cast members forming the semblance of a log cabin. His choreography is simple, mostly limited by the tiny Players’ stage.
Jacqueline Scaletta’s lighting makes the most of the small space with its use of color and sudden shifts.
Despite its fairy-tale plot, Axemas isn’t really suitable for children because of language and sexual situations, but everyone else will find something amusing in this rag-taggle production. An Axemas Story could use some tightening and more professional looking scenery, but it’s tongue-in-cheek fun, nevertheless.
The score is beautifully played under the musical direction of Sara Linger and the keyboard expertise of Buck McDaniel.
The rest of the cast, all excellent singers and game actors deserve mention. They are Cat Greenfield, RJ Christian and Brooke Searcy. They are all in tune with the offbeat tone of the work and are eager to please.
An Axemas Story (through December 17, 2023)
The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission