By Wendy Rosenfield
For the Inquirer
As someone who neither speaks Spanish nor celebrates Christmas, I'm probably a tough sell for Walking Fish Theatre's Un Viaje: A Christmas Journey. But as a parent looking to expand my children's cultural horizons, I'm also probably an ideal audience. The company should be commended for trying to integrate bilingual programming into its children's theater slate. Philly has a large Latino population in general, and Fishtown in particular, so it's a great way to get the whole neighborhood invested in supporting local theater.
Un Viaje, written by Walking Fish artistic director Michelle Pauls and actors Victor Rodriguez and Anjoli Santiago, has undeniable moments of delight, with plenty of opportunity for little ones to sing along or hop onstage to get their wiggle on.
But while its premise has promise — newly divorced Marisa (Santiago) has neglected her cultural traditions and brings her kids to spend Christmas with their Spanish-speaking abuela, or grandmother, (Rodriguez, in drag) in Latin America — its execution is lacking.
The whole show, clocking in just under an hour, has all the frenetic pacing and attention deficit disorderliness of Sabado Gigante, Univision's much-spoofed variety show. Maybe more.
Carlos and Luisa (Walking Fish theater students James Gribling and Ansil Guzman) try to behave like normal adolescents. But between Santiago and Rodriguez' bizarre skits — one inexplicably turns Santiago into Rudolph, and Rodriguez into what appears to be a beardless Santa with a hangover — the message is mostly buried.
The production culminates in a truly confusing, often-sidetracked explanation of Three Kings Day (a variation on the story of the gifts of the three magi).
Pauls directs, and she tries, really hard, to break the confusion into coherent segments. It's just that this script contains so many diversions and barely credible assertions (We're supposed to believe that, despite celebrating Christmas her entire life, Marisa has never heard of frankincense or myrrh) coherence can't help but cede the floor to mayhem. During one jarringly solemn shift in tone, after a mad dash through the audience to locate the kings' gifts, a young English-speaking audience member turned to his friend and stage-whispered, "Por que?"
I'm not sure, either, kid. The opening night crowd joined in when asked, and certainly, Santiago and Rodriguez appeared to have a good time.
I learned that Three Kings Day involves roasting a pig in the backyard, and that "burrito" means "little donkey." So that's something.
But considering the amount of high-quality children's theater in this area, and the niche Walking Fish hopes to develop, it would have been nice if everyone tried just a little harder to get it right.
Playing at: Walking Fish Theatre, 2509 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia. Through Friday, Dec. 30. Tickets: $6 to $12. Information: 215-427-9255 or www.WalkingFishTheatre.com.