By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

The Alliance Theatre is ushering in the season for us with “Holidays with the Chalks,” at a down-home, guitar-pickin’, finger-lickin’, low-rent country honky-tonk dive called Tubby’s, really the Hertz Stage.  The Chalk Sisters will be holding forth there through December 23.

They’re not really sisters; three New York based performers play Judeen (Mary Brienza), Judelle (Kathryn Markey), and Belva (Leenya Rideout) Chalk, all of whom have a deliciously sordid backstory  which makes their onstage antics make sense (sort of).  This is not an entertainment to take seriously; in fact, this is not a time to take anything seriously, yourself or anyone else, as director Susan V. Booth says in the program.

In retrospect, the Chalks’ tomfoolery may be their greatest gift to us, because we all know that the holiday season can quickly turn into a stress-filled season of jangling nerves and senseless obligations if we allow it.  But when you focus on such tidbits as Judeen’s infamous sado-masochistic affair with the minister of music (perhaps the most notorious backstory) that got the Chalks banned from Christian music, all you can do is laugh and have a drink or two.  And you can easily do this before or during the performance because a full bar is open and pouring in the back of the theatre; in fact, the sisters say their music goes down better aided by a little juice.

Janis Joplin used to say, “This song calls for a little audience participation.”  Well, the Chalks have that in spades, the most outrageous bit calling for an audience member to drink beer (nonalcoholic) from a cowboy boot, followed by a hefty swig by Judelle (or was it Judeen?).

Antics like this are welcome, because the basic stage movement here is rather static, with the women simply standing behind their respective microphone stands as they sing or chat with each other or the audience.  The singing is a highlight; all three have pleasant Reba McEntire-like (and you can do worse, believe me) voices.  They are expertly accompanied by Bill Hatcher on bass and Rick Hinkle on guitar and piano; they also accompany themselves, sometimes by unique and comic instruments of percussion.

You will not recognize the Hertz Stage:  Kat Conley, Atlanta’s star set designer, has transformed the entire theatre into a terrific low rent Christmas-time bar, with ample space for seating in tables, regular theatre chairs, and wrap-around bleachers.  There’s nice lighting by Pete Shinn; all of this creates a lovely, sleazy, trailer-trash ambience, which you, dear reader, will become a part of, as you celebrate “the birthplace of Christmas—America.”

The Chalks were born dirt poor; they say the “biggest room in our house was the room for improvement.”  I suppose you could say the same about “Holidays” if you’re looking for traditional holiday theatre; if you are, you can always head upstairs to the Alliance Mainstage where the gargantuan “A Christmas Carol” is playing.

Otherwise, you can have a rollicking good time getting down with the musical, slightly kinky, rollicking Chalks.  And by the way, the leading ladies wrote the songs themselves—such gems as “Chalk It Up,” “Mud Flap Mama,” “Hog Wild & Hog Tied,” “Space Cowgirl,” “Judelle’s Blues,” and others.  Sound like your cup of Southern Comfort?  Go for it—and have a good time.

For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.

 

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.