Review No. 2 of 2: Blood & Holly, Christmas West of the Pecos by Jaston Williams, reviewed by Brian Paul Scipione
by Brian Paul Scipione
Jaston Williams presented his touring holiday show Blood & Holly for a three-night run at Stateside at the Paramount in Austin. Originally known for plays about the fictional Texas town of Greater Tuna in collaboration with Joe Sears and Ed Howard, Williams is now just as well known—at least in Texas— for his solo works: I Saw the Lights, Don't Blame the Car, Is There Life after Lubbock?, I'm Not Lying, Clear to Partly Crazy, Blame It on Valentine, Texas, and A Wolverine Walks into a Bar. So, it's no surprise that he is a master of his craft, and his shows are sought after by those in the know. Williams’ work has won him the national Marquee Award for Outstanding Contribution to Historical Theatres as well as the Texas Governor’s Award for Contribution to the Arts in Texas.
Blood & Holly revisits Williams’ holiday memories and revives some of his well-known theater bits. He presents a rollicking multitude of hilarious caricatures, costume changes, anecdotes, and emotional stories. The set is both cozy and minimalistic, the lighting design captures the moods and the sense of place, and the costume design is superb. What truly stands out is the Williams's pacing, best described as comforting. His performance has the unspoken goal not only of bringing the audience into his world but also of doing so in a way that takes them out of their own.
In the beginning, Jaston's performance casts the spell of a gifted country-fried raconteur, but about one-third of the way through it takes a sharp turn reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. A series of vignettes portrays both charming and odd denizens of West Texas. The stories border on the absurd at moments but usually end up eliciting a chuckle or an approving sigh from the crowd.
Following these, Williams gets the story back on track by returning to his own Christmas memories. They fall into three episodes, all arguably based around his relationship with his mother. First, he is a child desperate to believe in and catch Santa Claus in the act, but he is continuously foiled by his mother. He concludes that the real goal is not ‘keeping Christ in Christmas,’ but ‘getting Momma out of it!’ Even as a boy he begins to loathe Christmas, and everything associated with it. As he rattles off the list of offending articles (Burl Ives, poinsettias, wrapping presents, aluminum trees), the crowd at the Stateside goes wild in mirthful commiseration.
Williams jokes that he created the successful show A Tuna Christmas only so he no longer had to return to his family. He is able to assuage his mother by replacing his holiday appearances at with ever-more valuable Christmas presents, ("payoffs").
Williams's signature maneuver for decades has been costume changes, and there are quite a few. The best of the evening (and the most symbolic) is certainly the angel with the broken wing. The audience favorite was clearly Sherpa Hugger, a housewife embodying old-school Texas values. Jaston plays her with such tongue-in-cheek vivacity that it was hard to tell whether the audience was laughing with her or at her. Creating that mixed reaction is a characteristically clever maneuver typical of Williams’s writing style.
All too soon we are on to what I view as the third act of Williams’ personal take on Christmas, also a nod to the evening’s performance itself. Portraying an older man sitting at a bar that has become his surrogate home and welcoming the new bartender, Williams revisits not only the ghosts of Christmas past but those of Texas past. Many things have changed. Some have stayed the same, and some others may even change back.
In any case, we have Williams, man and performer, serving as a golden thread connecting the present to the past, holding on to the good, the bad, the somber, the hilarious, and, most importantly, the truth.
The next time he comes around to Austin or any of the other Texas stages, you will not what to miss him.
December 17 - December 18, 2021
713 Congress Avenue
Austin, TX, 78701
Stateside at the Paramount presents Blood and Holly, a hysterical holiday performance by Greater Tuna’s Jaston Williams based on his own life experiences. Limited three-show engagement December 17 – 18, 2021.
Tickets go on sale Thursday, October 21 at 10 a.m. local time and will be available atwww.austintheatre.org or by calling 512.474.1221 Monday – Friday, Noon – 5:30 p.m.