"It's not a holiday play until someone on stage pretends to receive an enema" is a sentence no one has said anywhere, but that spectacle is just one of the oddities in "Coco's Diary" at History Theatre in St. Paul.
Less a play than a loose collection of anecdotes, derived from the 1927 diary of 13-year-old Coco Irvine (which former Star Tribune writer Peg Meier discovered while researching a book about children in Minnesota), "Coco's Diary" begins at Christmastime. Two adult siblings in the wealthy Irvine family are visiting the St. Paul mansion where they grew up, which is to be turned over to the state of Minnesota as the governor's official residence.
Coco (Andrea Wollenberg), now middle-aged, reminisces with brother Tom (Jake Endres) about the house and the wacky escapades they cooked up there, which are much like the wacky escapades of teenagers in nearly every house in every era.
Soon, they are joined by Dora Dolphin, playing Coco at 13, at which point the adult actors shift back and forth between the 1920s and '60s, portraying various adult and child participants in the Coco story. The versatile Wollenberg and Endres — both veterans of the theater's original 2012 production of the play — each spend time at the piano, too, singing a few bars of Christmas carols and '20s standards.
There is a great deal of charm in the diary, which was ultimately published as "Through No Fault of My Own." Coco's bossy and opinionated voice is memorable, even if — like many a young person — she does seem obsessed with bodily fluids, and Wollenberg's affectionate reading of the diary helps us envision what the life of this Jazz Age moppet must have been like.
It's in the dramatizations that things get sticky. Dolphin, who alternates in the role with Arden Michalec, is an assured and precocious performer, but her Coco is so delighted by her own exploits that there hardly seems to be room for the audience to participate in them.
Meanwhile, there's something a little creepy about the interactions of the three actors. Hard as they work to suggest various children, Wollenberg and Endres are bound to tumble into an uncanny valley when they are acting opposite an actual child. (Speaking of valleys, I'm hazy about why a couple of the '20s teenagers sound like '70s Valley girls.)
The issue is the script. Stephen Sondheim has written that in the theater, content dictates form, and that is where "Coco's Diary" errs. Essentially, the play is a warmly nostalgic comedy/drama along the lines of "Life With Father," but the fluid, almost improv-y performing style is closer to Brave New Workshop, and that is an uneasy mix, especially since the piece is performed on a handsome Rick Polenek set that anchors the play in the real world.
The result is uneasy but, I have to admit, fascinating, because "Coco's Diary" seems to exist on two levels at once: a cheerily nostalgic play for the holidays and a much stranger show that seems to be lurking just beneath its surface.
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Who: Adapted for the stage by Ron Peluso and Bob Beverage. Directed by Ron Peluso.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 23.
Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $15-$52. 651-292-4323, historytheatre.com.