Real estate agents in Minnesota don't warn you about the fun of having a corner lot in winter. The math is simple enough: twice as much yard equals twice as much sidewalk. But in our desire to get something for nothing, we too often ignore the obvious: for at least six months out of the year, that sidewalk will need to be shoveled.
And it shall come to pass that in the second half hour of sidewalk clearing, as the chilly daggers pierce the outer layers of protective fabric to meet the sweat rising from the inner ones, a kind of Zen takes over. It has to, or we would simply pay attention to physical reality and immediately vacate the premises for Palm Beach.
My personal moment of sweet clarity this year had to do with what all three holiday shows I saw sorely lacked (despite the ample charm and talent on display): the heaviness and danger of snow. We admire its beauty through a picture window and conveniently forget that snow is frozen, has real weight, and can kill you.
Unbelievably, every year we forget this. We forget what it does under car tires, how hard it is to scoop under and lift once it's packed down, and how loudly our bodies scream in protest when asked to dig a trail through a solid foot of the stuff. One reason we need rituals is to remind us of what we know. But without the real-time, present moment immediacy of revelation, ritual can offer only skin-deep comfort. And stage snow, after all, has neither weight nor cold.
If nothing else, holiday shows should be a reminder of the price we pay for the lush beauty of spring. Whether secular or religious, they are about redemption and rebirth, possibility arising from death. But this time of year we expect our redemption on the cheap, arising from mild inconvenience rather than death, thanks very much. At one extreme, the evil in the world—always presented as something well outside our own hearts and psyches—is so repellent as to allow the audience to absolve its own sins by comparison. At the opposite but related extreme is that evil is softened, its corners rounded off, and its threat removed to avoid giving offense.
The story of a flying sled
Don't get me wrong, we're an extraordinarily talented town, even in December; there was no shortage of energetic, imaginative performances and brilliant theatrical moments in the three shows I watched: rarely during the rest of the year is the sheer joy of theatrical stagecraft allowed to be the star of the show, and in the Holiday Season it is given free rein.
However, A Christmas Carol is not supposed to be the story of a flying sled, or a magic knocker, or even of a miserly old man who is scared straight by ghosts. It's a cautionary tale. Not only does it offer the sweet comfort that, even for a man like Scrooge, it's never too late to find redemption, but also the bracing admonition that if we aren't vigilant, the Scrooge in all of us will take over. Without both halves the tale has no tension, no weight, and the redemption has no surprise.
This is part of the inherent challenge of rituals: we know how they turn out. Every year Scrooge will turn over a new leaf at the end and demand the best turkey for Bob Cratchit's family. The only questions, really, are mechanical. What will the ghosts look like this time? Is he a mean Scrooge or just a sad one? How long will it take to convince him? At the Guthrie this year, that last question is answered on the poster: it's only 90 minutes!
Peter Michael Goetz and director Gary Gisselman, however, have conjured such a cuddly, ingratiating central character that it could just as easily be much, much shorter. Their Scrooge is never truly frightening, just a little irritated, and doesn't really even put up a fight against the spirits to defend his life. He's like an agreeable therapy patient, progressing from avuncular crankiness to avuncular giddiness with no real internal conflict. There is always a gleam in his eye, a conspiratorial wink to the audience assuring them he's their friend, their guide through the Macy's department store window display where everyone is deposited on the other side exactly as they were before, safe and unafraid.
The entire show followed this formula. Tasteful, static and even confusing, it all just sort of unfolded, one scene after the next, with no real surprise or conflict. If this was done to pander, the audience response on the night I saw the show was still palpably muted. Out of a cast full-to-bursting with talented actors, only Mark Nelson and Richard Iglewski made much of an impression, the former for finding heart, dignity and even humor in Bob Cratchit (which can be a cloyingly one dimensional role); the latter for relishing and squeezing every last ounce of audience response out of the irrepressible Uncle Fezziwig. Too much? Absolutely. But unapologetically, gleefully so. Since it was my first Guthrie Christmas Carol, I won't make assumptions about how this one stacked up. But I also wasn't terribly curious to return next year to find out.
Sympathy for the Devil
For most of Open Eye Figure Theater's Holiday Pageant, I felt exactly the opposite. This show, which has become a tradition over the past several years, has a charmingly homemade vibe, like we're all invited into the living room of a particularly talented family to watch them perform. In the tiny Open Eye space, the actors tower over the audience and the set, as though they are stepping out of a doll house. Every gesture is magnified, and even the beautifully carved puppets feel human. The chorus feels like a choir, not like actors playing a choir.
From the moment Elise Langer pops out of the floor surrounded by red light and dry ice, she really is one of Satan's minions from Hell. Only hilarious. Here was a story I hadn't heard before, and the effervescence and sheer joy of her performance sucked me right in, making me wonder whether her boss might not actually win this year.
But here the show let us off the hook. Michael Sommers' Devil was plenty grotesque, but he was never the least bit sympathetic. He was having so much fun reveling in the delicious nastiness of his character that he missed crucial opportunities to find his humanity. Not to soften him, but to make him impossible to dismiss. We should feel the warnings: "I never want to become like that," or "That behavior in my own life seems tiny, but when I see it blown up it's pretty horrible." As it was, we could only see his devil as a vindication: "At least I'm not that bad; he was shocking and off-putting, but there was no surprise, no recognition. Lots of heat, but little light.
The future Santa
S. Gunter Klaus & the Story Before is a promising, valiant attempt to provide both. The script, by John Heimbuch in collaboration with Director Jon Ferguson and the company of young actors they’ve assembled, returns to the theme of battling Darkness throughout the piece. But it never really answers the question, “What’s so bad about it?" or for that matter, "What's so great about the light?”
The future Santa may be a homeless drunk, but he never seems less than jolly, even when supposedly facing death. (To be fair, that’s partly because it is played rather unthreateningly by a small child in a black sort of Middle Eastern Ninja suit.) Despite the moment of stillness when he temporarily succumbs to the shadows, the fear and sorrow are never given any real depth, and we know that we’re never far from another meta-theatrical moment when the clowns will drop both their characters and the story to assure us that no real harm will come to anyone.
To be clear, I think this show has enormous potential. A world premiere, it is already full of charm and moments of magical simplicity, even though it was written and performed in just a couple of months. I hope it is revived next year so it, too, can become a ritual. As it is, this show offers a charming escape from the real darkness of the uncertain present into a world of fantasy and tradition. If its creators dig a little deeper into the shadows they’ve stirred up, they could instead help to give their audience the strength to confront them head-on.
A holiday wish
Am I asking theaters to trade their holiday shows for A Long Day's Christmas into Night? No. The darkness is already there, in the stories they've chosen. But if they dip their brushes a little deeper, the light will get brighter, too.
That's how it works in nature. After a long winter, spring isn't just a magic trick, but real, earned magic. When I stepped inside the warm house on Christmas Eve day, after shoveling snow for a full hour, the cider I drank was, bar none, the best I've ever had, cinnamon and sugar replacing what my body had lost, recalibrating my body and my spirit to face the world again. If I can get that effect from souped-up apple juice, why should ever I ask any less from art?