A cool breeze rolls across the idyllic North Okanagan farm setting as families gather in sleighs and huddle together for warmth with hot chocolate in hand to take in the Christmas performance.
That’s the holiday tradition Caravan Farm Theatre has cultivated with their annual winter show, and this year is no exception as the theatre presents The Gift of the Magi Dec. 12-31.
Set in pre-First World War New York City, the performance based on O. Henry’s classic short story tells of a young couple who struggle to finance Christmas gifts for one another.
“Both the way it was written and adapted, it explores the more existential side of gift giving,” said director and Caravan Farm Theatre artistic director Estelle Shook. “They are just ordinary people. They want nice things but they don’t have a lot of money.”
On the brink of poverty, Jim and Della both choose to sell their most prized possession — for Jim, it’s a watch that has been passed down through his family, and for Della, it’s her beautiful flowing hair — to purchase a gift for one another. However, with a watch chain for Jim and a hairbrush for Della, the gift they purchase for their partner correlates with their prized object.
“They could choose to freak out, but they choose not to, instead choosing to see these for what they are, which are great gifts of love,” Shook said. “It’s a very beautiful story, and it’s a super timely message.”
Originally brought to the theatre about 15 years ago by then artistic director and now music composer and director Allen Cole, The Gift of the Magi has carved a path at Caravan Farm Theatre as a Christmas classic.
“I was here and saw it and it was one of my favourite Christmas stories of all time,” Shook said. “It’s not a fairy tale — it’s a slice of kitchen sink drama. But there are some really poetic and theatrical scenes as well.”
With crews working tirelessly for two weeks leading up the performance, the quiet farm is transformed into an idealized version of New York City, complete with stoic buildings and Coney Island markets.
“We have a really amazing set designer, and the set is very evocative of a New York flat,” Shook said.
And the immersion takes a step further, as the audience is carted around the farm on sleighs, with up to 10 sleighs hauling 18 passengers at a time, complete with New York City-esque traffic jams.
“We wanted to make the sleigh rides super fun and we even have a traffic cop,” Shook said. “It’s actually really fun to take a very non-rural setting and put it on a farm.”
As the audience is carted around the sprawling countryside, they have the opportunity to step off the sleighs and take in the Coney Island Christmas market set, which is built at ground level and made to immerse the audience in the performance.
While the intent is to have a winter wonderland during the performance, the show will go on regardless of the weather pattern.
“The show is generally similar night to night, but the environment is always different,” said Lisa Mori, communications director, adding that the changing conditions can add to the magic of the evening. “Some of these bad weather events can make for a special evening.”
Their environment-fuelled magic has worked for Caravan, with a cast comprised of Caravan alumni — with Billy Marchenski as Jim, Tracey Power as Della and The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw fan-favourite Randi Hellmers as narrator — and families returning year after year for the unique winter performances.
“It’s an incredibly popular event because there’s nothing else like it in the world and there’s a really finite amount of space,” Shook said. “I think one of the big things for us as a company, we’re incredibly lucky.”
And it’s audience loyalty that means everything to the theatre.
“There’s a tremendous amount of praise for the audience who come out to this crazy farm,” Shook said. “We’re grateful and appreciate of the audience who have us as a part of their family tradition. All of the artists also take it seriously by trying to make the best holiday show we can.”
Caravan Farm Theatre presents The Gift of the Magi Dec. 12-31. Early bird shows are Dec. 13 at 7 p.m., 14 and 15 at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., with tickets for $34 adult and $22 youth 18-and-under. Regular shows are Dec. 16-20 and Dec. 27-31, with shows at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. and tickets for $42 adult and $25 youth 18-and-under. Holiday shows areDec. 21-23 and 26, with shows at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. and tickets for $45 adult and $25 youth 18-and-under. Limited tickets remain and are available through the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca. When the show is sold out, call the Ticket Seller to be placed on a waitlist.