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.

Fringe-For-Fall Again

Drifting outside of my usual comfort zone, I’m always struck by the fact that this town doesn’t really consist of a “theatre community” so much as it consists of a vast array of communities arranged around various disciplines and economic models. There’s definitely a “Fringe circle” (which I’m most heavily involved in), an “Improv circle” (generally arranged around the Brave New Workshop and the activities of its various alumni), stand-up circles, poetry circles, circles ad severe nauseam — and whenever I believe that I have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the Twin Cities, I walk into a new environment and have that illusion shattered.

Hence my being startled at walking into the Fringe-For-Fall and realizing that I recognized a significantly smaller proportion of the crowd than I’m used to. Of course, with a $25.00 price tag, most of my compatriots in the artistic world couldn’t afford the night out — and I also had the abrupt realization that I was both younger and more shabbily dressed than most of the people I was occupying a room with.

Still, y’know, Bedlam Theatre, Fringe entertainment, and my own personalized “Shazam!”, copious alcohol. But it served as a healthy — and important — reminder to me that the Fringe phenomenon reaches across a wide variety of boundaries, not simply limited to those who I choose to surround myself with.

Both of the entertainers were at the top of their game, too — both performers who have been performing at the Festival since waaay before it was cool, and they manage to hit the stage with a certain ease, projecting confidence and relaxing into an easy and playful relationship with the audience without visible effort.

Joe’s piece was mainly a “Fringe-i-fied” preview of his Christmas show, “Fat Man Crying” (so indicated by the sparse settings), sandwiched by a pair of comedy monologues by the author (opening with rejected ideas of Fringe holiday shows and closing with an “instant audience review”). Enjoyable enough that I wondered how Kling would follow it up — and his more thoughtful style definitely took a period of adjustment — but not too long, as he hit his stride with a meandering piece alternating between story and music.

There’s something about accordion music — I don’t know what it is — something really bizarre and melancholy and jarring that just — feels like Fringe, to me, in some indefinable way. And standing, leaning against the archway between the theatre and the bar, I was struck by how much of my experience of fringe is sensual — the bitter, acrid taste of dark beer at the back of my throat, the surge and swell of laughter and applause on all sides, the clatter of dishes and glasses in the background, the way the stage lights neatly divide any black-box space into a light-dark yin-yang. And I’m struck by the thought that so much of what we do year-round is trying to recreate those physical sensations, in an effort to evoke something in our own fleeting sense-memory. That’s the reason for so many of these monthly showcases, from the Scrimshaw Brothers to Sin Cities 7 — and the real draw of these occasional fundraisers that the Festival puts on.

Am I romanticizing? Probably. I was accused, back when I was writing directly for the Fringe, of glamorizing my bosses. But the fact is that I’m a willing accomplice — I’m the Jared Fogle to the Subway that is the Festival. (Except, y’know, that the Festival has actually caused me to gain weight.)

Anyway, I had a moment. And that was worth the twenty-five bucks.

Fringe-For-All

addiction
a – dic – tion [uhdik-shuhn]
-noun
the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.
Origin:
1595–1605; < L addiction- (s. of addictio) a giving over, surrender. See ADDICT, -ION

– Dictionary.com

So what do Santa Claus, Barack Obama, and your faithful Fringe blogger have in common? (Er, aside from the fact that we’re all imaginary characters?)

It’s that right now, our lives revolve around a single month of the year. The Minnesota Fringe Festival — or, as I like to call it, “The Christmas in August” — may be down, but it’s far from out. Plenty of us Fringe artists are dumb enough to continue trying to work year-round for a fraction of the audience energy and response. And that’s not out of any kind of genuine work ethic or a sense of misguided nobility.

It’s because we’re junkies. It’s because we’re panting after our next high, man, where we feel that crazy communal energy and the sky is filled with colors, starving hysterical naked, dragging ourselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.

(Uh, it occurs to me that that last description may actually be a pretty literal depiction of a lot of Fringe artists come August.)

But until then, we have to coast between the few sporadic Fringe events that take place between the Festivals proper. But Five-Fifths is still six months away — what’s an addict to do?

Which is why I’m just as perversely pleased as a proverbial Punch and Judy show to alliteratively announce the Festival’s freshest fundraiser, the fabulous Fringe-For-Fall. And if that dapper display of devilishly daring diction didn’t dazzle you, well, tough. It’s a Wednesday night and I’m at home writing a blog post, what more do you want from me?

I have it on good faith that there’ll be entertainment from Fringe stalwarts Kevin Kling and fellow Rockstar Storyteller Joe Scrimshaw — as well as one of the most eclectic auctions that you’re likely to find this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

I know I can’t wait. What are you doing tonight?

Leave

So I received an e-mail from Matt Everett (cards on the table: I know the playwright), offering me a comp to come and review this show, with the caveat that this one, unlike the previous shows of his that I’d seen and reviewed, was not a romantic comedy. This is significant, because it is emphatically one of his favored genres, and it is emphatically not mine. My feelings walking away from his last two shows had been the same: skillfully constructed, with a flair for clever one-liners and psychological nuance, characters who reveal themselves naturally and subtly through the course of dialogue without feeling forced; but all placed at the service of a concept that held little interest for me.

Romantic comedies revolve largely around wish fulfillment, and while there are often hints of more disturbing conflict swirling beneath the surface, the function of the plays is mainly to experience vicariously the giddy pleasures of realizing that you’re really into someone, and they’re really into you. And I guess my feeling about love stories is similar to my feeling about religious conversions, or orgasms: they’re really awesome to have, but it’s not terribly interesting to witness someone else experiencing one. Kind of depressing to witness someone else experiencing one, actually.

But this is not that. It isn’t about the euphoric, early stages of a relationship, although those are sketched out briefly, broadly, and elegantly early on. This is a story about love in the face of darkness, and that is something I’m much more ready to groove on.

I say “darkness”, not only in the sense of evil – although I would characterize much of the ideology that the characters confront as evil – but also darkness in the sense of being murky, opaque. There’s no clear villain that the heroes have to confront, unless it’s a sprawling bureaucracy, a silent wish in a collective unconsciousness; they’re throwing their punches at something they can never really clearly identify, and that’s the source of much of their frustration. This is the most ambitious script of Matt’s that I’ve seen, and that probably contributes to making it my favorite.

It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. It walks a tightrope of sentimentality, occasionally stumbling into moments of being maudlin. Some of the characters embrace an emotionalism that I frankly can’t imagine from the soldiers that I’ve known, although it’s certainly possible that they’ve simply chosen not to share that side of themselves with me. (I will say that one of the characters portrayed a panic attack brought on by PTSD that I – as someone who lives with panic disorder – found distressingly accurate.)

The characters have an occasional tendency to burst into speeches, in much the same way that the characters in musicals burst into song. I don’t have a problem with that – in fact, I have a certain, ahem, fondness for shows that aggressively embrace their polemics – but they feel jarring within a script built around such an easy naturalism.

The show is at its best when it’s understated. At its core, this is one of any countless love stories between a soldier abroad and his mistress back home, struggling with the frustrations of isolation and fidelity: the twist is that both of the lovers are men.

Okay, here’s the fundamental truth about Matt Everett’s scripts: on the surface, they appear to be very modernist confrontations with contemporary political issues. But the fact is that at their core, what he writes is surprisingly traditional: drawn with the same broad strokes and deft touches, the same classical construction and – I suspect most importantly – efficiency of language as any number of movies or plays from the nineteen-thirties. He writes for the economy of gesture and the internalized intensity of men like Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, and I don’t think he’s yet found a cast that truly grasps that.

What’s truly clever about his scripts is the fact that he embraces such a classical form, but sets it in a modern context, against modern problems. A lot of gay theatre struggles to create a new language: his plays embrace the fact that we’re all speaking exactly the same text. So perhaps the most ironic thing is that being such a traditionalist is precisely the thing that makes his scripts so subversive.

Twin Cities Improv Festival: Part One of Three

Reviewing improv is a strange thing. While in any kind of live performance, it’s the case that the performance I see one night isn’t going to the performance you see another, in improv that’s carried to an extreme — even the broad outlines may vary widely. Without the security of a unifying text, it’s easily possible that the same show might be side-splitting one night and horrifically, jaw-droppingly bad the next. So there’s already an element of absurdity in trying to pick apart any given performance, figure out what makes it tick — by the time you’ve achieved any kind of meaningful realization, it’s gone forever. It’s the blessing — and curse — of the form.

Vaudeville With a Pig

I have to admit, this one was pretty hit-and-miss for me: while both members of the team are strong performers in their own right — Jen Scott in particular is an excellent physical comic — they don’t really seem to have a strong chemistry, a strong rhythm, a strong back-and-forth together — many of the sketches consisted of awkward pauses in between the back-and-forth, possibly intended for comic effect, that really just didn’t feel much other than awkward.

123 IMPROV!!

The other piece on the bill had me consistently laughing — bent over holding my sides laughing — and it’s worth considering why, especially since both group’s sketches had about the same hit-to-miss ratio — plenty of this group’s pieces were pretty lame, too, went nowhere, fizzled out. But I was laughing, because the underlying joke of the show was so strong — that of a trio of socially awkward, relentlessly cheerful, subtly disturbed improv performers.

Seeing these two groups paired together was kind of an interesting opening for me, because it really reinforced my sense that improv’s all about the singer, not the song — the latter piece worked so well because the underlying characters, and relationships, informed what they were doing, enough so that the actual material was almost irrelevant. Again, not to dismiss the first group — not bad performers by any stretch of the imagination, but one that hadn’t yet found that underlying mechanism.

the Onion Writers

At one point, an audience plant stood up and berated the performers — claiming that she’d paid to be entertained, paid to see an improv festival, and that it was really lame to watch two writers clumsily riff their way through a powerpoint presentation. Having a character bring that up was funny, but didn’t really make it any less annoying.

I have to confess, I’m not a huge Onion fan — every now and again there’s a headline that makes me burst out laughing, but for the most part I find it tediously formulaic. This show consisted mainly of two writers, reading Onion headlines to us off of a projection. Aside from the fact that, yeah, that’s a pretty lame cop-out of a performance — the Onion works in small doses. It’s the kind of thing you pick up, flip through, laugh, throw away, pick up next week. Having to sit and have essentially the same joke thrown at you, over and over again, for an hour, really, really, really pounds home just how formulaic it is.

The ending of the performance fared somewhat better — a number of improv performers join the writers and try to teach them how to perform, the running joke of which is that they’re really fucking bad at improv. Which is a good joke, and a funny one — but like the rest of the Onion schtick, it’s a hard joke to sustain. Especially when you end up being more interested in the improv performers than the actual stars of the show.

Revenge of the SITH

I spent much of the month of May writing about the Spirit in the House Festival, and continued my ambivalent struggle with the concept: what possible definition of “spiritual theatre” can be created that isn’t either offensively narrow or ludicrously broad? The problem fascinates me enough that I’ve written about it at some length.

In any case, I saw a bunch of shows that I never got around to reviewing. There’s two, however, that seem to neatly encapsulate my love-hate relationship with the Festival: Jesus at Guantanamo and Dr. King’s Dream. Allow me to emphasize that both were very skilfully-crafted performances, well-written and well-enacted; that I had issues with both; and that I really enjoyed the former.

The latter, not so much. I tend to be skeptical of these attempts to deify political figures, although it’s probably too late to save Dr. King from that fate. I’ll confess that I have something less than an unmixed admiration for his work; while I’m profoundly impressed by his work in the civil rights movement, he was advocate for many causes (reparations, quotas, racial set-asides, affirmative action, economic redistribution, etc.) which to my way of thinking served only to reinforce the bars of the cage. No hint of this exists in the show, or in the popular myth that’s sprung up around his personality. I miss it, not out of any kind of desire to tear down a popular figure, but because if it’s your assertion — and indeed, this seems to be the thesis of the production — if it’s your assertion that one man’s intellect significantly altered the landscape of the nation (and I believe that it did, and for the better), then don’t we have an obligation to make a sincere investigation of that intellect? Otherwise, what possible function does the production serve?

“Jesus at Guantanamo” was easier going for me, just a little bit smarter and a little bit darker. I expressed some concern during the showcases that it would be difficult to sustain such a mannered performance for the length of a show, but he does so by pulling out a wide variety of theatrical tricks: moments of silence, moments of shouting, music and dancing. At one point he tells us a story of torture, couched in comical language; then proceeds to tell us the same story in pictures, by handing them out to the audience, one by one, passing them down.

It’s an effective device, and a good way to bring the audience into direct confrontation with what the play’s about. But it was difficult for me to engage with, because I was being distracted — and irritated — by the audience response of everyone around me, both in this sequence and throughout the show. One of the reasons I suspect that I’m drawn to comedy writing is that laughter is a genuine response; placing your hand under your chin and “hum”-ing, thoughtfully and loudly, is not.

Not to dismiss the possibility that I’m simply jaded. But I find it difficult to credit that anyone who voluntarily purchased a ticket to a show titled “Jesus at Guantanamo” is going to be sincerely shocked or surprised by anything that they saw in those images. My impression was rather that those responses were a (perhaps unconscious, perhaps reflexive) attempt to demonstrate how very properly shocked we were to each other; to vocalize our social responsibility.

I’ve spoken with Matthew Vaky, and I don’t doubt that his intentions as a writer are sincere. Nor do I deny that he’s created a very well-crafted performance around a worthwhile concept. But the jaded part of me looks at both of these shows, and can’t stop myself from wondering: is provoking that response the primary reason that theatre like this exists? If so, it’s unpleasantly self-congratulatory; if not, it’s not accomplishing what it sets out to do.

“Dr. King’s Dream” concludes with what I can only regard to be a catastrophically ill-advised decision. The play is structured around the recollections of Dr. King the night before he gets shot: and throughout the entire production, I found myself thinking “Please don’t end this the way I think you’re going to.” At the end of the play, the actor slaps his hands on his knees and announces that he’s stepping outside. Yes — perfect — the perfect ending. He’ll step off-stage, and leave the rest to happen in our imaginations. The final note of the play will be understated, and far more powerful for it.

But, alas — he steps out to the front of the stage, waves at a few people — a gunshot goes off — the actor clutches his chest and grunts dramatically — and then — and then! — the actor actually steps out of character and addresses the audience, instructing us to remember Dr. King’s dream. As though we couldn’t have arrived at that conclusion ourselves, after an hour of listening to him speak! I’d like to be more charitable to this production, but really, those last few moments constituted a gesture of such astounding contempt for its audience that it’s difficult for me to.

Still, the audience gasped and shook their heads, solemnly and appropriately. So maybe that’s exactly what we deserve.