Another Night Before Christmas

Title: Another Night Before Christmas
Theatre: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Playing Through: December 31st

Another Night Before Christmas presents itself as a kind of sequel/modernization of A Visit from St. Nicholas, the twist being that the homeowner is a lonely, alienated social worker whose malfunctioning security system has locked her in her apartment with Santa. Oh, and it’s not entirely clear whether Santa is Santa or a mentally unstable burglar.

That’s a freakin’ brilliant premise. Part of the problem is that it’s treated inconsistently. If she’s a competent social worker who truly believes that the man is delusional, she should know better than to indulge him to the degree that she does. One moment she regards him as dangerous, the next they’re laughing and sipping wine together, the next she’s afraid for her life again. I appreciate that it’s a comedy, but I don’t think I’m being excessively pedantic — it bothers me precisely because it undermines the comedy. If there’s no consistent tension, there’s nothing for his schtick to play against.

His schtick consists of — well, not really jokes, per se — mainly stream-of-consciousness impressions and pop-culture references, a la Robin Williams. It’s a style of comedy that is widely loved, but which I personally find needy and off-putting. Moreover, I found that it rendered the character actively unlikeable, to the point that the question of whether he’s Santa or not ceased to be relevant — as he breaks into the terrified girl’s apartment, and she pleads with him while he fires punchlines at her, he either doesn’t know what a frightening situation he’s creating for a single woman living alone, in which case he’s a lunatic, or he doesn’t care, in which case he’s a sociopath. Neither is one that I particularly want to spend two hours with.

And as for the ending, when the stranger is revealed as Santa (which surely can’t count as a spoiler, can it? Was there any doubt that the play would end with him performing some miracle, her abandoning all of her perfectly legitimate complaints about greed and rampant consumerism, and converting to the Sacred Text of Christmas Is Awesome?), I found myself wondering, man — wouldn’t this have been an amazing play if they actually embraced that ambiguity? If they didn’t pursue the most obvious route? If it really did turn out to be a story about love and charity, even at its most difficult?

But then — I think it goes deeper than that. None of the above points are really hugely significant. They’re the usual mental exercise of me trying to figure out why I’m sitting in the audience, surrounded by a packed house of laughing patrons, and wondering why can’t I laugh at this?

Upon reflection, I have a theory — inspired by something that didn’t take place during the performance itself, but immediately beforehand.

Fifteen minutes before the show, the greeter — both charming and charismatic — stood up to give a fairly standard curtain speech. He closed out with a popular street joke, which drew an appreciative ripple of laughter from the audience. I was seeing the show with a friend, who also happens to be a popular stand-up comedian, and watched him wince in something like physical agony. The use of street jokes onstage actively offended him.

Among comedy writers, there’s a myth of “universal comedy” — as if there was some kind of Monty Python-esque “Killer Joke” that, if it could simply be distilled and reproduced, would be equally appreciated by everyone on earth. That’s an utter myth, of course — people are complicated, comedy is complicated, and the intersection between the two is never going to be consistent.

Much of what I find appealing about comedy is surprise — the moment of mutual realization that the audience shares — when they’re shocked or stunned into laughter. I had exactly three points at which I laughed during the show, all of which because they were unexpected.

Back when I was a Renaissance Festival performer, I used to perform immediately following a trio known as the Dew Drop Jugglers. It was an education — since, hearing their act multiple times a day for weeks at a time, I quickly memorized it. And their delivery was exactly the same, without variation, day after day after day. The formula was simple enough that audiences learned the material, too, and took great delight in reciting the routines along with the performers.

And it made me wonder, man. Doing that multiple times a day, for weeks at a time, for years on end — wouldn’t you just kind of want to pierce your ears with a railroad spike? Apparently so, because every now and again, they would try to rewrite their material, introduce new jokes, mix it up a bit.

The audiences hated it. They would not allow them to change. They wanted to see the material they knew, and they wanted to bring their friends back to introduce them to exactly the thing that they’d fallen in love with. They didn’t want a new experience, but to re-experience their initial moment of surprise.

And it occurs to me that, as much as I’m annoyed with tired, obvious, hackneyed jokes — the things that I hate are precisely what constitute their appeal. The audience loves those punchlines because they’re obvious and familiar. It’s the theatrical equivalent of comfort food.

None of which necessarily increases my enjoyment. But I think I can appreciate why it was working for the crowd I was with.

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‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Title: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
Company: Stages Theatre Company
Playing Through: December 28th

Initial Thought: A Visit from St. Nicholas is a widely-adapted Christmas poem that’s kind of a really weird choice to try to adapt anything from — it’s paper-thin, almost nothing happens in it, and it’s more about evoking a sort of atmosphere than communicating much of a story.

Plot Summary: So this production takes a sort of metafictional twist — it’s about the composition of the poem by Clement Clarke Moore on Christmas Eve. His family continually distracts him from the task. Then fairies show up.

Apparently Tangential Thought That I Totally Swear I’m Going Somewhere With: It occurred to me recently that I haven’t really seen most of the major Biblical epics, so I’ve been binging on them over the past couple of weeks. Most telling are the adaptations of the Gospels. The most effective are at their core conversion stories: witnessing the people around Jesus gradually realizing that, whoa, the things this guy is saying are actually pretty bold. By far the least effective are those that presuppose that Jesus Is Awesome: he opens his mouth and people start immediately falling all over each other to get to him; he’s always framed in magnificent, sweeping shots; delivers all of his lines with a booming solemnity and everything short of a Golden-Age-Superman knowing wink at the audience.

The Point I’m Trying To Make: Is that this is kind of the secular equivalent of that.

No, Wait, Let Me Elaborate: The core idea of this show is that Christmas Is Awesome. That is its Sacred Text, its unblinking, unquestioned assumption. Which makes any kind of rational criticism kind of difficult, since just about every decision the production makes is based on that.

By which I mean, there’s a lot of observations that could be made: that the plot is paper-thin; that most of the pleasures come from visual stimulation and stagecraft that don’t do much to advance said plot; that it’s peppered with songs that don’t really contribute much of anything beyond atmosphere. These observations would be technically correct, but missing the point, because the point of this production is atmosphere. The cheery family and obedient children with their stilted, polite dialogue don’t resemble any family that I’m familiar with — but they’re not supposed to: they’re an idealized family, one that can be the way they are because they’ll never have to confront any serious problem. I think I grasp the appeal of that kind of fantasy, but not enough to share it.

Sugar-plum fairies show up: not because they have much of anything to do with the source text (beyond that line about “visions of sugar-plums”), but because they appear in the Nutcracker Suite and they’re now associated with Christmas in the popular consciousness. Likewise, toys dance because they do it in the Nutcracker and it’s Christmassy. Every aspect of the script is a celebration of the images and traditions we’ve come to associate with the holiday, so how much you enjoy the show will likely be directly proportionate to how much value you place on that kind of nostalgia.

A Personal Prejudice: I think I’m prepared to add the word “magical” to my short list of misused or vaguely-defined words (along with “quantum”) whose misuse bothers me, because I have the sense that they represent powerful or beautiful concepts — particularly as someone with an interest in the construction of fantasy, for children or otherwise. The fairies represent an entirely benevolent disruption of the natural order. There are no rules governing their behavior. They seem to exist solely to provide a line-by-line inspiration for the writer’s creation of the poem, as though it existed as something before him and he simply needed to call it into existence — as though the writer were completely irrelevant to the process of creation.

No, Wait: I’m going to return to that point later.

A Quick Note on the Acting (particularly since I tend to be very text-oriented): Some of the performers are quite good, but it’s difficult to tell, because their performances are put at the service of that excessively stagey, cartoonishly broad style that is currently very popular in children’s theatre: one that eschews subtlety, seemingly under the assumption that children won’t be able to appreciate it. I find this assumption objectionable.

Which is why I also find it ironic that the child actors were by far the best performers in the show. The adults’ singing was shaky — not even slightly so for the younger ones. Several of the young dancers were impressively strong. In nearly every scene, the children acted around their elders in circles — while I found the adults grating, the children committed to their parts with a total intensity that made me wish I could see what they could do in another production.

The Defining Quote of the Show: “Maybe being a serious writer is just writing about what you feel and see…and not being so…serious!”

The Point I Said That I Was Going To Return To Later: I imagine that your response to the above quote is likely to be your response to the show itself. If you find that to be a romantic, liberating sentiment, this is probably the show for you — and the size of the audience suggests that this is the vast majority, who I cheerfully hope have a wonderful time.

Alas, I’m among those who find its implications objectionable: the claim that emotion is more important than thought; that your nostalgia for symbols and rituals is more important than a consideration of what they represent. I don’t think I’m asking too much from an all-ages Christmas show; and I don’t have any objection to milk for babes, and meat for men.

The Verdict: For those who love those symbols and rituals with a fervor bordering on the religious, this show was made for you. For the rest of us, it’s syrupy enough that it may leave you feeling kind of sticky and gross afterwards.