Sandra Tsing Loh is 42, but she can't seem to get out of middle school. Her 12th Christmas, speckled with typically unbearable preteen angst, keeps replaying itself every year around this time, like a twisted collection of holiday tunes sung by self-conscious adolescent chipmunks. You can find Loh reliving her youth onstage, among fake California snowflakes and a too-big pair of toeshoes, in her solo show Sugar Plum Fairy. "It's not really a one-person show," said the writer/performer in a recent phone interview. "It's a two-person show with me at war with myself."
Loh's piece is based on a short story she wrote by the same title (originally aired on NPR's This American Life), which tells the tale of two sisters, ages 12 and 15, auditioning for a local production of The Nutcracker. The younger sister (the main character) is confident of her abilities and sure she's going to get a good role in the ballet; she is inconsolably shocked to discover at auditions that: a) her older sister has talent, b) she doesn't, and c) she's fat. What starts off as a seemingly ordinary holiday play set in a winter scene of reindeer, tinsel, and gold lamé-wrapped gifts becomes a wacky journey through Loh's emotionally tragic Christmas past told through the eyes of a girl whose life did an unpleasant back flip when she was cast -- or cast off -- as a Nutcrackerrat.
Unapologetically autobiographical, the work revisits an adolescence in which Loh recalls always being a head taller and 30 pounds heavier than the girls who tended to get lead parts. If she wasn't being chosen to play rodents in Christmas fairy tales, she was landing roles like Grandma Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof. "I could never get my ingénue dreams to line up," she said. But she also admitted a certain irony here: In her show about the girl who never gets the lead in anything, she's playing all the parts.
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Sugar Plum Fairy is set partly in Loh's childhood Malibu home, where the idea of a winter wonderland always fell flat under the sunshine and palm trees. But it also visits other times in her life, including a Christmas spent in a run-down apartment with a vegan boyfriend who refused to celebrate holidays. Still, it's not just about the season (which Loh reminds us is prime time for suicide and the gathering of "emotional lumber"); it's about learning how to deal with the major letdowns of our youth. It also takes a healthy dig at the equally loved and hated Tchaikovsky ballet.
"I've always been fascinated with The Nutcracker," Loh said. "It's such a cultural institution. But it can be such a heinous cultural institution." Though her show caters to the cynics, it's not devoid of plastic snow and stage magic -- which, Loh explains, always have a place at the theatrical Christmas table.