While some folks will be spending their Christmas Eve dining on baked ham and listening, yet again, to Aunt Edna's litany of medical complaints, a few of us will be pursuing a new holiday tradition involving, of all things, Chinese food and improvisational comedy.
Over the past three years, performer and improv workshop facilitator Jodi Cohen has found a holiday niche in Madison, dishing out her annual one-woman dinner show, "Oy to the World," using humor to shed light on the overwhelming nature of the holidays.
Cohen originally assembled the December show for her Jewish friends, who were perpetually looking for social activities on Christmas Eve. When she approached the co-owner of Imperial Garden, Karen Meyer, about her idea for a Christmas dinner performance, Meyer happily agreed. With minimal advertising, seats filled up quickly, and it soon became apparent that Cohen's appeal went beyond her circle of friends. Cohen now offers four shows, including two post-Christmas performances.
Using a blend of scripted material, improv and audience participation, Cohen offers a peek into the comic insanity of the holidays, allowing her six characters to voice the frustrations that we all face, no matter our religious background.
Cohen describes her characters as "truth-tellers," who utilize comedy to tell it like it really is: "For me, what's so liberating about portraying these characters is the chance to put voice to the subtext of what goes on for all of us."
Cohen's Jewish grandmother character, with her thick Yiddish accent and high-tech, latke-making walker, will depart from her standard comic shtick this year to share her heartfelt desire for people to end their fretful holiday antics and instead focus on sharing time together.
Nikki, the show's teenage persona, will tell her tale of working at the airport's information desk during the holidays. With her blunt teen manner, Nikki offers "not just literal information but what you really need," such as convenient excuses for getting out of the house and advice to lesbians bringing home a girlfriend for the first time.
Because of the improvisational nature of the show, each performance takes on its own tone. This year, Zelda Goosebumps, Cohen's pet psychic, will do readings, revealing to the audience their pets' gift preferences, while Helvi Majander from northern Wisconsin will create her cooked macaroni sculptures based on audience requests.
"The joke of it is," Cohen says, "No matter what I do, it still looks like a pile of macaroni."
Cohen gives a nod to the role humor plays in relieving the stress in our busy lives: "Regardless of it being a great time of year to celebrate and be joyous, it's stressful - errands, parking, the snow, waiting in lines. There's a lot of focus on materialism, with pressure to be in the loop that way. We need humor. We need it bad."