Russ Hunt's Reviews
by Mark Medoff
Theatre New Brunswick
When Theatre New Brunswick announced that the annual family Christmas production this year was to be a play by Mark Medoff, the award-winning author of Children of a Lesser God and a number of other well respected plays, many people were pleased, hoping that perhaps a script by a writer of Medoff's stature might demonstrate that "family entertainment" did not need to mean merely sanctimonious, dumbed-down-for-the-kids sentimentality, as it so often does.
Anyone who has had much contact with good literature for children knows that it's possible to write books, and plays, that assume that children are intelligent and attentive, sceptical about empty platitudes, and receptive to honest emotion and real understanding. It's even possible to produce, based on those assumptions, work that kids like.
I'm very disappointed to report that Kringle's Window makes none of those assumptions. It's the kind of story -- and the kind of play --written by people who think writing for children is easier than writing for adults because children are innocent and ignorant, won't notice or care about inconsistencies or lack of character development and plot, will be pleased by happy endings and sentimental pronouncements, and won't notice that the children presented are empty, unconvincing clichés.
The story of Kringle's Window, such as it is, is this: Mom and Dad have separated, for no clear reason; daughter Becka retreats to her computer screen and succumbs to peer pressure to disillusion her younger sister, Boomer, by letting her in on the fact that Santa doesn't exist. Now everybody's unhappy. (But not very unhappy; after all, it's Christmas.)
Enter one Mrs. Rosen, who is what Boomer calls "a magic person." Mrs. Rosen fixes everything -- and turns out, in the bargain, to be Santa Claus's (or Kris Kringle's) mother, who travels around the world solving large social problems like the rift between Becka and Boomer's mom and dad, and Boomer's (and everyone else's) lack of belief in Santa Claus. Magically, and with some expert help from TNB's hard-working props and special effects department, she produces a Christmas tree, a Christmas dinner, a reconciliation between the parents, a real Santa Claus, and a synthesizer for the musically inclined (but not very competent) Boomer.
In the course of this action we don't find out why the parents have separated, nor why they come back together. We never actually hear the song Boomer's supposed to be writing on her toy synthesizer. We learn nothing about Becka's absorption with the computer, and never understand what the connection is between her finding Kringle's Window on the World Wide Web and the appearance of a "real" Santa down the family chimney. We hear a good deal of patently false adolescent slang, some completely erroneous computer jargon and a good deal of psychobabble -- almost as completely empty as the computer language -- about families and hope.
Given the script, it's very difficult to assess the abilities of the actors. I was embarrassed for David Nairn,an actor who has done excellent work at TNB before, struggling with the empty pieties and pointless wisecracks of the role of Dean (Becka and Boomer's estranged dad) -- and trying to look both like someone who could make a living as a counsellor and also think it a good idea to come down a chimney dressed as Santa Claus to convince his sceptical daughter that there really is one.
I was embarrassed, as well, for the rest of the cast. Michelle Daigle, in the role of Irene (Mom) gave it her best shot, but I couldn't believe for an instant that Irene existed after she walked off stage.
The local children cast in the play, unfortunately, fared no better.They all showed signs of being potentially excellent performers, but if David Nairn couldn't find anything much to act with in the script it shouldn't be a surprise that they couldn't either.
Amanda Bentley, as Becka, had wonderful stage presence and lots of control over her diction: but Becka's depression was so thinly imagined by the playwright, and her computer skills so empty, and her recovery from depression so unmotivated, that she simply had too little to work with. Tessa McKim, as Boomer, had the same problem: her job seems to have been to be cute. For instance, completely out of the blue, she's assigned a question for the Kris Kringle or Santa Claus figure who's appeared in her living room (and who is not very much more convincing than her father, whom she saw through instantly). "Do reindeers poop on people's roofs?"
After the requisite pause for a chuckle over the cute questions kids ask, it turns out the answer is "no."
All the young actors faced the same dilemma: all faced it with courage and skill. But their lines didn't come to life because the playwright didn't give them the materials to work with.
At the center of the play is Mrs. Rosen, whose magic is responsible for most of what happens. Clearly, we're expected to write off all inconsistencies and implausibilities to her magic, and her personality is supposed to carry all before her. But Medoff gives her limp wisecracks, trivial and cliché magic tricks, and thin, repetitive moralizing remarks -- and Glenda Landry wasn't able to create much beyond the material she was given.
All in all, in spite of the best efforts of the cast, a wonderful, bright, powerfully useful set by Patrick Clark, and all the resources of the Playhouse, I am very disappointed to say that I can't recommend taking children to this show.
As a test, I checked "Kringle" on the World Wide Web after I got home from the theatre. I didn't find the address Becka and Mrs. Rosen found, but I did find a Los Angeles Times review of the original performance of this play. "Kringle's Window," it said, "Is Strictly Kids' Stuff."
I disagree. I'd say it's only suitable for adults, who can indulge their fantasies about how kids are and what they'll be charmed and satisfied by. I think it's an insult to children. I'm particularly disappointed because I think Theatre New Brunswick is one of our best chances to introduce children to the magical, powerful world of live theatre, and the annual Christmas show is a wonderful opportunity. I'm sorry we missed it this year.
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