By the time you read this, Christmas will be over and most of us will be recovering from overindulging in food and drink and recuperating from too much time with our families. There will be some loose ends – gifts yet to be given to wayward cousins or old friends you see once a year, perhaps a few Christmas cocktails to be consumed before we conclude the end-of-year revelry and tuck in for the long winter’s nap. I personally never really feel that we are clear of the holidays until breakfast on January 2. While Christmas is only one day, the season of merriment, sentimentality, and Christmas theater lasts until the final performance of A Christmas Carol at hundreds of theaters across the country.
In a way, I’m glad for this. It’s nice to meet up for drinks with friends you see once or twice a year and laugh at old memories, catch up on how things are going in their busy lives. It’s also nice because two weeks ago I saw Kevin Kling’s performance, Of Mirth and Mischief at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown Saint Paul, and to be honest I’ve been putting off writing about it. Luckily for me, there is still time to write about holiday shows here on MinnesotaPlaylist.
I’ve been putting it off for two basic reasons. First, I saw it and couldn’t convince myself that it was really theater, rather than live storytelling (which feels different) and thus that it wasn’t really fair to review it as one would review a show like the others I’ve reviewed here. Of course Kling is well known as a storyteller, it’s his schtick, and he is very engaging at the lectern. And it’s not that events like this one shouldn’t be written about, only that some of the things one writes about theater – like, say, acting, or sets – just don’t apply here since there are no actors and the set was the band and Kling at the lectern and a Christmas tree that flew in toward the end of the show. But I can say this: the plot, involving a story from Kling’s childhood about undergoing surgery for a malformed hand interspersed with his flights of imagination, complete with fairies and princesses, childhood nemeses who become friends and tales of grandmotherly wisdom, kept you listening. The story is structurally interesting. The music was awesome.
The second reason is that I’ve been trying to figure out what made Kling’s tale such a hit with the audience, and how to write about it. After many days of thinking and a few Christmas cocktails to spur my grey matter into action, I hit on the simple, obvious answer: nostalgia. Kling’s recollection of events from his childhood in Minnesota interspersed with fantastical fairy tales played the heartstrings of audiences who longed to indulge in some nostalgic reverie at this time of year. Even hard-hearted adamants indulge in some nostalgic reverie at the end of the year, and nostalgia is what’s been itching in my brain for the past few weeks.
The season to reminisce
The more I thought about it, the more I became aware of just how much of the entire season is built around the cult of nostalgia. On television it’s impossible to miss the at least one of the twenty million showings of It’s a Wonderful Life, which airs not just because of artistic merit, but because millions of people build watching that film into their Christmas traditions, and traditions are intimately tied to nostalgia. Consumerism taps into that same vital current as well: how many advertisements depict images of the “good old days”? Even the food is intimately tied to our longing for how things used to be. At my own Christmas dinner, an indignant aunt scoffed at the cheesy potatoes because they had only one onion instead of two, not for reasons of culinary merit, but because two onions is how grandma used to make them and that’s how it is always done.
We bottle all this longing and place it compactly into six weeks every year, and when those six weeks come along we explode and, just like with food and drink, we overindulge. Distilling all that nostalgia down into a two-hour story with music is what makes Kling’s show work so well for audiences. Catharsis for a busy year, it is nice to sit back and enjoy a story that takes you back to your own childhood. Kling’s talent is his ability to recognize what is universal in his particular experience and to relate it in a way that lets people remember, for a time, how things used to be – which we almost universally associate with being simpler, kinder, and less stressed. The fact that this is a contrivance is irrelevant because it seems to be necessary for our psyche to release, reflect, and enjoy.
So when I sit with an old friend over a glass of mulled wine and laugh until I’m crying about some hijinks from a decade ago, I’m indulging, too. And I understand why hundreds of people want to go see a nice man from Minnesota talk about his childhood— when enemies could become friends in minutes, and when fairy tales were just as real as anything we might experience. I’m also ready to bottle it all back up, and then come back for more next year.