By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer on Dec 18, 2010, at 2:22 AM Updated on 12/18/10 at 6:02 AM
“Santa Claus: A Morality” is the title of a short play by the poet e.e. cummings that the Nightingale Theater is staging. But those words also serve as the theme for all the short monologues and sketches that make up this intermissionless evening.
Most people are familiar with the basic concept of Santa Claus: the “jolly old elf” in the red suit who spends Christmas Eve flying from house to house to deliver gifts to all good children. It’s a happy, comforting story, one that appeals to the child in all of us.
Yet beneath that greeting-card, bedtime-story facade are some disquieting depths, some poignant truths, some misguided hopes that this character engenders in people – a number of which are explored in the seven vignettes on the program.
Cummings’ play, for example, posits Santa Claus (John Cruncleton) as someone who finds the world unwilling to accept the gift he wishes freely to give.
Santa’s problem, according to the figure of Death (Andy Axewell), is that this gift of “understanding” isn’t something the world values. If Santa wants to be successful, he needs to become a “scientist” – or, as Death puts it, “a knowledge salesman.”
The two characters swap masks, so that Santa now wears Death’s skull-like face as he starts hawking nonexistent products that the public enthusiastically buys – for a while. It takes a bit of mob violence to make Santa realize that the “science” of materialism cannot endure, and that only understanding born of love can satisfy the human heart.
As befitting the allegorical nature of the play, the characters broadly painted and language is employed with a stylized simplicity. John Cruncleton is most effective in the Santa-as-huckster scenes, extolling the virtues of his product and cajoling his audience to heights of greediness with evangelical fervor.
He is equally good, though in a more low-key way, in “Christmas on Third Street,” a monologue written by Sara Cruncleton. A hustler tries to explain to a young kid new to living on the streets how “Christmas isn’t so bad,” provided one hooks up with a john who is willing to be a little more generous than usual in exchange for sexual favors.
Santa Claus, in this case, is the figure the narrator “used to pray … would come and make everything better.” But the fat guy in the red suit never showed.
Santa is always just outside the glow of the light in Amy Page’s “The Little Match Girl.” But the title character, wonderfully played by Sara Wilemon, is convinced that each bit of her potential livelihood that she sets aflame will draw this fur-clad savior a bit closer to her. It’s the only hope she has left in a life that has no warmth at all.
There isn’t much warmth in “Old Saint Nick” himself, also by Page, with Dale Sams as the saint who inspired Santa Claus alternately describing and bemoaning how he has become “the patron saint of children,” and how pagan rituals evolved into Christmas traditions.
Perhaps the most effective piece is “Craftastique!” written by John Cruncleton, and performed by Sara Cruncleton, who attempts to guide the audience in making a Santa mask from paper plates, construction paper and cotton wool.
However, because she’s been thinking about things and “doing the numbers,” as she goes about making the mask she begins to talk about the physical impossibilities of Santa Claus in the modern world – how many tons of toys he would have to carry, how many reindeer it would take to haul all that loot, the speed at which the whole shebang would have to travel and the physical consequences of all these factors.
It’s a hilarious piece, and Sara Cruncleton performs it with the perfect blend of deadly calm and caffeinated craziness.
Axewell plays Santa as a charity bell ringer in “Ding” by John Cruncleton, trying to scare up donations from passersby with a patter of equal parts low-brow humor and guilt-inducing philosophy.
The entire company comes together to perform Ogden Nash’s poem, “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus,” reciting verses of the poem that are then illustrated with some comically effective shadow puppetry.
“Santa Claus: A Morality” continues with performances at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St. Tickets are $8 and available at the door, or by calling 663-8666.