REVIEW: The Santaland Diaries (Theater Wit)

  
  

Spend a bawdy evening with Santa’s fave martini-swilling elf

   
   

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Theater Wit presents
   
The Santaland Diaries
   
Written by David Sedaris
Adapted by
Joe Mantello
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A few days after Black Friday—and are you sick of it yet?  Has Christmas decor begun to look blindingly tacky to you?  Does the constant replay of Christmas tunes already fill you with bored revulsion?  You may need a retreat to an ashram where the saffron-robed monks have never heard of Christmas. 

Or you could try The Santaland Diaries, now onstage at Theater Wit, directed by Jeremy Wechsler.  A new holiday classic—although new is really stretching it since David Sedaris first regaled NPR audiences with his elfin misadventures in 1992.  Still, this ironic, melancholy 90’s swipe at America’s most oversold holiday has held up well, if for no other reason than because we, as a country, consistently make the same old mistakes about Christmas that we have ever made before.

Urinal - potrait“I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm that Santa requires,” quips Mitchell Fain.  His performance is definitely sharper, more caustic than Sedaris’s, who delivers his tale with soft, wry, and distanced resignation to the absurdities of his elf-training at Macy’s for Christmas.  Indeed, in a startling departure from Sedaris’s original work, the actor makes a stab at comparing Santa with Satan.  But who’s to say that’s wrong? 

In it’s own light, sardonic way, The Santaland Diaries is a parade of Christmas horrors, another example of man’s inhumanity to man, the banality of marketing manipulation wrapped in candy-striped tights and a green velvet coat.  Macy’s Santaland, constructed as the happiest place on earth at the most joyous time of year, gets exposed at its worst in this humorous yet Bruegelian portrait of communal venality and desperation. 

Being an elf in the service of Macy’s exposes one to a thousand humiliations and we can be grateful to Fain’s impeccable comic timing that these get rattled off with a full range, from self-deprecation to sly satire to burlesque to savage and direct improv with the audience.  But elfin humiliations in the name of commercialism are not the worst of Satanland Santaland.  There are much worse:  parents who slap their children because they won’t stop crying and get on Santa’s lap, parents who request a “traditional” Santa—by that they mean a Caucasian one, parents who manipulate their children to promote their own political views and parents who tell their children it’s okay to pee in the artificial snow.  Even martinis cannot allay the madness that only escalates in the countdown toward Christmas day.

IMG_4786_JPGFor this reason the act’s one last magical moment doesn’t quite sell.  Out of a million wonderfully weird and self-absorbed Santas, one shows up to treat the children as they should be treated and teach us all a Christmas lesson.  It’s the one sentimental false note of Joe Mantello’s adaptation.  While it might send the crowd out of the theater with a smile, it simply cannot reconcile all atrocities committed from attempting to manufacture warm and fuzzy holiday feelings to promote higher retail sales.

Real Christmas spirit can’t be bought or sold.  Real magical childhood moments are fleeting and unpredictable.  Real development as a human being means accepting life’s flaws and imperfections, not inhumanely overreaching to grasp at meaningless once-in-a-lifetime perfection.  If nothing else, The Santaland Diaries can help you laugh off the Christmas madness, even if that madness has become embedded in our yearly traditions.            

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   
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REVIEW: Pancake Breakfast (The New Colony)

      
     

Family dysfunction stacked high and covered with syrup

     
     

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre

   
The New Colony presents
   
Pancake Breakfast
   
Written by Tara Sissom
Directed by
Sean Kelly
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $10-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Independence Day is an annual celebration of liberation. For Beatrice, this year is D-Day for the release of a captive, her brother. The New Colony presents the world premiere of Pancake Breakfast. Beatrice resurrects the 4th of July family tradition. Her plan is to get the estranged family together to intervene in her mother’s unhealthy relationship with her brother. But before the clan can instigate the interference, they need to re-enact the holiday family rituals from pancake breakfast to fireworks. ‘Going home again’ is a craving never quite satisfied. Do pancakes ever taste as good as the childhood memory of them? Pancake Breakfast is family dysfunction stacked high and served with fruits and nuts.

Pancake Breakfast - The New Colony - Viaduct Theatre 4Playwright Tara Sissom devised the Pancake Breakfast script in collaboration with the actors. Sissom laid out the premise and the ensemble developed individual characters. The result is an IHOP menu of tasty options that don’t quite go together for one well-balanced meal. Some of the characters are a bounty of flavor. Arlene Malinowski (Lillian) is a delicious loud-mouthed, mean-spirited, mother flapjack. Evan Linder (Randy) is a delectably hilarious, Asperger’s son-of-a-bitch. Jack McCabe (Arlie) stirs the pot for laughs as an eccentric nut. Megan Johns (Darcy)smokes the pot as the amusing, carefree 2nd wife. It’s these tangy portrayals that overshadow the other milder ingredients. What are the other tastes? Gary Tiedemann is definitely sweet, but how does he blend with his bitter partner, Andrew Hobgood (Bobby)? And Steve Ratcliff (Bud) seems a little bland for marrying zesty… both times.

The script can be confusing. In the first scenes, it’s unclear who Eleanor (Susan Veronika Adler) is. Adler brings some spice but is more seasoned for the grandmother’s role than the grown-up version of a youthful single parent. Thea Lux (Beatrice) goes to a lot of trouble to serve pancakes but seems more like a waffle eater. Lux is a quandary. What does she want? And where is she going? Her last line at the show’s end adds to the mystery.

Director Sean Kelly stages the show on a long linear stage. It’s an interesting floor plan representing a variety of rooms (scenic design by Nick Sieben). But in the cavernous Viaduct Theatre, this layout muffles some pertinent dialogue because of the obstructive angles. Sometimes the audio barrier is actually another actor standing directly in front of the speaker. From the southeast corner, a tub conversation is muffled between the submerged and the percher.

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Simultaneous staged activity occurs for a horizontal visual feast, tasty or otherwise. In an initial scene, the march to the breakfast table is a light-hearted patriotic salute. Often when family gets together for a holiday, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Relative cooking can get confusing. No need to start from scratch, Playwright Sissom just needs to clarify the recipe’s direction and whisk the lumps until smooth. Pancake Breakfast is a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity combo platter in the making. Order up!

  
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

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Pancake Breakfast continues thru December 19th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

   
  

 

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REVIEW: A Klingon Christmas Carol (Commedia Beauregard)

  
  

Fun, fresh retelling of Klingon holiday classic

   
  

A Klingon Christmas Carol at the Greenhouse Theater Center

   
Commedia Beauregard and the Klingon Assault Group presents
 
A Klingon Christmas Carol   
   
By Christopher O. Kidder and Sasha Walloch
Directed by Christopher O. Kidder
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through Dec. 19  | 
Tickets: $32  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Charles Dickens’ enduring holiday ghost story, "A Christmas Carol" has been translated into scores of languages since he wrote it in 1843, but by far the oddest has to be the tongue in which Minnesota-based Commedia Beauregard stages its surprisingly successful production at Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park. A Klingon Christmas Carol is performed almost entirely in Klingon, the artificial language invented by linguist Marc Okrand for the "Star Trek" movies.

037_A Klingon Christmas Carol - Commedia Beauregard by Mr. Guy F. WickeProjected English subtitles and narrator provide context for those of who don’t speak the language, and the storyline has been adapted somewhat. Klingons don’t celebrate Christmas, so a festival called the "Feast of the Long Night" substitutes, a time when the warlike race holds tournaments to uphold clan honor and put their young through a grueling coming-of-age ritual. Scrooge is not only the antisocial skinflint he is in Dickens’ original but also a coward — a plot better fitting the context of the warrior culture of the Klingons, as developed in the TV series and films.

While there are plenty of in-jokes and references to delight the "Star Trek" buffs, you don’t have to know much about Klingons or the series to follow along. Klingons have evolved some since I last paid attention. When the 1960s-era "Star Trek" TV series began, during the height of the Cold War, Klingons resembled Russians. For the films, they got a remake to be more exotic and ugly, a transformation that was only explained much later in the canon. Except for the old-style Ghost of Kahless Past (Zach Livingston), the play presents latter-day, bumpy forehead Klingons.

Written by Christopher O. Kidder and Sasha Walloch and translated into Klingon by Kidder, Laura Thurston, and Bill Hedrick (who also designed the Klingon heads), with help from Chris Lipscombe, (who attended the opening clad in full Klingon regalia), the play has been performed in Minnesota for the past three years. This marks its Chicago premiere.

   
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I’m not qualified to comment on how good the translation is — they could be repeating "inka binka" for all I know — but the show works well on many levels. A broad acting style, coupled with the unknown language and masklike makeup give the show an intriguing similarity to Kabuki, the traditional Japanese theatrical genre. The adapted story fits into that convention as well. It’s convincingly foreign and yet familiar. Kevin Alves shines as SQuja’, the Scrooge character, cringing and ducking and crawling under tables.

Sara Wolfson, who plays the pointy-eared Vulcan narrator offering context, strikes me as a bit too animated and expressive to be one of the supposedly emotionless race exemplified by Leonard Nimoy, but it’s a minor flaw. The rest of the large cast all play multiple roles ably, though the actors sometimes rely too obviously on the floor-height teleprompters they’re using for cues.

Jeff Stoltz’s costumes would win prizes at any "Star Trek" convention. I’d have liked to have seen more exciting fight choreography and a less sketchy set, and the subtitle operator needs to keep pace better with the action.

Overall, though, A Klingon Christmas Carol provides a fun, fresh approach to an old classic. If you ever enjoyed "Star Trek," you’ll want to see it.

   
 
Rating: ★★★   
  
 

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All photos by Guy F. Wicke

 

 

  
  

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