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picture - The Truth About SantaTheater Reviews

by Harvey Perr

published December 12, 2008


The Truth About Santa (ends December 20)

Beasley’s Christmas Party (ends January 3)

The Black Monk (ends January 3)

Out Cry (ends December 21)


It is easy to imagine that, in a failing economy, the price of theater tickets, even in our discount-rampant culture, is bound to seem sublimely ridiculous. When I think of an average family going to see a holiday show, for example, the outing can easily cost several hundred dollars. I mean, let’s face it, you can rent the film version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and enjoy it a lot more than the stage version, which really has no reason to exist except that its title alone spells big bucks at this time of the year. Quite honestly, the film on which it is based doesn’t stick to the ribs either. As for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, really, who are you to the Rockettes and what are the Rockettes to you? I understand that traditions die hard, but how many times can one sit through all that treacle and tap and think you are really into the holiday spirit? The price of tickets is significant, it would seem (top price $105), and so is the idea of going to have a vivid experience at a live theater, and how nice it would be to see holiday fare re-invented, to discover something brand new at the theater, which may even make you think anew about what the  holiday season is all about, and do it all while sitting in cheap seats.  Personally, I think it would be great if the theater really took the idea of Christmas seriously – there’s no running away from the fact that, whatever you think of it, the holiday as a commercial enterprise is with us and is here to stay – and came up with works that are fresh and inventive, that made dents in our heads and our hearts, and to which we could also take the kiddies. The time has come to stop recycling the same old crap year after year and come up with something new……….

picture - The Truth About SantaWhich is just what Greg Kotis, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics for Urinetown, has done in his marvelously silly The Truth About Santa, an authentic treat for harried minds, which conjures up a madcap and quite reverential kind of Christmas, in fine goosey-loosey fashion, and which, under John Clancy’s inspired direction, puts a smile on our faces and keeps it there for a thoroughly diverting hour or so (top price $18). In his play, George and Mary (Bailey?) are not having a particularly wonderful life, and Mary can’t wait for Christmas Eve when she’s going to run off with Santa, and take the kids, Freya and Luke – who may indeed be Santa’s children – with her to the North Pole. Greg Kotis plays George and his real-life family (Ayun Halliday, India Kotis, and Milo Kotis) play his stage family and, with the delicious professional support of Bill Coelius (as Santa), Lusia Strus (as a shrewish Mrs. Claus), Clay Adams and Jeff Gurner (as two nutty elves), they seem to be having a great time, which is definitely contagious. There may be nothing quite as brilliant as the slow song the elves start the show with, but there’s still more than enough terrifically solid entertainment value in spite of that fact.  I couldn’t understand a word emanating from the mouth of third-grader Milo Kotis, but I couldn’t get enough of his physical bits of business. And the beautifully painted scenery by David Towlun (a special delight) as well as the costumes by Ayun Halliday and the set design by Heather Wolensky all contribute to the homespun roughhouse quality and tinkly charm of this boldly innovative holiday event. They’ve even got the family dog into the show. And who can resist a well-behaved animal? Not me……….

picture - Beasley's Christmas PartyThe Keen Company is performing its own holiday magic in CW Munger’s adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Beasley’s Christmas Party, a miniature gem of civilized wit that plays like an old-fashioned radio play that has found its way onto a stage and quietly and elegantly goes about its business, weaving a tale of a curious Christmas party to which none of the townspeople of  midwestern Wainwright seem to have been invited. One actor (Tony Ward) acts as narrator and two other actors (Joseph Collins and Christa Scott-Read) play all the other characters. Ms. Scott-Read, in particular, does some lovely work switching, sometimes within the briefest of flashes, from a refined young woman to a male shop-keeper to a strange child to a goonish male to a lofty old busybody, all of whom are clearly and sharply defined. It’s literary stuff, perhaps, and its pleasures a bit genteel, but it has been exquisitely wrought by its director Carl Forsman and his actors. And their work is immeasurably helped by Beowulf Boritt’s set – old trunks piled one atop the other, which imaginatively transform into many things including a Christmas tree – which gives the work a sense of a discovered antique artifact, like some Christmas card of time past. And Josh Bradford’s warm lighting suggests the glow of a fireside. Again, something different, something appropriate to the mood of the season, something casual and relaxed, something home-made. Nice work. Not bad at all…….

picture - The Black MonkCompare this to the rarefied atmosphere in which Wendy Kesselman’s The Black Monk is forced to breathe. Since Ms. Kesselman’s chamber musical is inspired by the Anton Chekhov short story rather than being a literal adaptation, it is senseless to discuss the differences between the two, though one can’t help wondering why Chekhov’s flesh-and-blood characters have been turned into such one-dimensional archetypes. Bloodless and lifeless, but with beautifully trained voices, her hero and heroine provide lyrical breadth to Ms. Kesselman’s unvarying score but seem unable to move the work towards the tragic depths it seems to want to go to. Austin Pendleton plays the monk who mysteriously leads Igor, the young hero, to his success and, ultimately, to his destruction; and he can’t sing at all, but, at least, he lets you hear, despite the cragginess of his voice, what he is singing. Still, with only an abstraction to play, he succumbs to a kind of looseness that is at odds with the character. The entire experience is a little bit like walking into a corner of a museum (that has been cordoned off) to see the work of art that has been put on display. But we stand there for what seems like a lifetime before we realize that there is not very much to see………..

picture - Out CryTennessee Williams and his late work, much of which has yet to be discovered, let alone re-discovered, because so much of it has never been fully realized, deserves a great deal of serious critical attention, and, even more, needs to be creatively imagined  by anyone undertaking the task of bringing any of these plays to our attention. Whether or not Out Cry (aka The Two-Character Play) is one of those plays remains impossible to know, until, of course, somebody gets it right. The NAATCO production, unfortunately, doesn’t get it right.  One of the points Williams makes is that the theater had become his prison.  It is a poetic thought, and possibly a true one.  But in the spirit of this time of the year, it would be nice to feel that the theater can be liberating.  Try The Truth About Santa, Beasley’s Christmas Party, and, of course, Arias With a Twist.


harveyperr @


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