Russ Hunt's Reviews

Dear Santa
by Norm Foster

Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, November - December 2003

Writing a "Christmas show" -- the sort of play that regional companies around North America will produce to attract the family audience which -- at least in theatre tradition -- is searching desperately for a wholesome, child-oriented bit of fluff for the kids that at the same time will introduce everybody to the idea of the theatre, and to the unique ways in which theatre challenges the imagination and the understanding -- is no easy trick. Playwrights fail at it all the time: the most notable instance I can remember is Mark Medoff's Kringle's Window, which defeated the best efforts of a dedicated and hard-working Theatre New Brunswick crew seven years ago. And occasionally they succeed, though it's been some years since we've seen a really good one in Fredericton.

So I was very interested to see what an old pro like Norm Foster would produce for that market.  Dear Santa turns out, in the event, to be almost exactly what you'd expect: competent, complicated, occasionally witty, dramatically sophisticated, and not childish at all. Foster drapes a half-dozen plot lines around the basic situation: Santa's getting ready for the Christmas Eve mission, and there are obstacles and distractions, all of which (of course) are solved and defeated just in the nick of time.

The plots, and the characters who inhabit them, are well conceived.  Foster pulls out all the stops here, creating a bevy of characters who are actually fun to be around, and plots lines which, if they push all the buttons as systematically as if they were following a computer program, still avoid the obvious clichés. Algernon Gladstone is Santa's "chief of staff," a stiff, businesslike, archly British Malvolio, who needs to be loosened up and brought to see that love is all around him.  Octavia is the Jill-of-all-trades at the North Pole, smitten with Gladstone, though he doesn't notice it, and somehow we know the two of them need to be brought together. Bozidar is the head of the toymaking shop, and boss elf; he needs to solve problems like the fact that the supply train hasn't brought any wood glue, and to have his fractured, Mrs. Malaprop / Jose Jimenez / Inspector Clouseau English repaired or translated. Lou Flapdoodle, the visiting Detroit-based sleigh salesman, invited by Gladstone to try to get Santa to upgrade his aging sleigh, needs to make a sale.  And Kit, the requisite alienated adolescent, needs, well, to have her "Christmas Spirit" upgraded (in spite of the fact that she's got enough to have stowed away on the North Pole supply train in order to hand-deliver her brother's letter to Santa).

All this occurs swiftly and unconfusingly on Robert Doyle's brilliant set -- a densely-crowded workshop, into which, on cue, Santa's corporate office swings from the side, and under the perfect Chris Saad lighting we've come to take for granted. Snatches of random Christmas music punctuate and underline scene and mood changes, and the lame song which ends the show is arranged by Mike Doherty to conceal its flaws (though I did find the miking a distraction, and one of the few failings in a generally fine sound design). To a person, the company move wonderfully: at times the near-slapstick is neatly coordinated with the music (at one point, for instance, a do-si-do bodily contretemps between Bozidar and Octavia became almost a dance to the Tchaikovsky background music).

Individually, the company Scott Burke has gathered for the production is strong, as well.  Stan Lesk, whose memorable turn in A Servant of Two Masters more than a decade ago I still remember, is as good a Santa as any I can remember, even (or especially) when he's in a portly vest and watch chain rather than his red uniform. Lesk walks right, and even (wonder of wonders) pulls off the laughter. More remarkably, he's believable as a the beleagured CEO of a company hurtling toward a deadline and juggling his obligations and decisions and still somehow remaining a right jolly old elf.

Equally good is Rejean Cournoyer (why isn't he at center ice for les Habitants?) as Gladstone, the still, long-suffering, business manager / personnel director for the North Pole operation. Like Lesk, he walks perfectly for the part: think 60% Basil Fawlty and 40% Norm Foster and you've got it, and manages not only to act the Malvolio pompous clown but also to gain some real sympathy as he discovers Octavia's interest in him and tries to figure out what responding would consist of.  Stacy Smith's Octavia is sensitive, flighty, overwrought and appealing by turns; I especially admired the way she modulated from frenetically setting up the "wrap party" -- up and down and across the stage with tablecloth and punch bowl, and suddenly sighing and relaxing us all into the end-of-season party mood.

Wally MacKinnon's Lou Flapdoodle, the sleigh salesman, Sheldon Davis's Bozidar, and T. J. Tasker's Skiffle (the main workshop elf) all make us forget the extent to which they are one-note, one-schtick characters, and deliver their not-always-wonderful one-liners with indefatigable panache. MacKinnon's Art Carney imitation, complete with porkpie hat, serves the never-say-die salesman well ("my grandmother's 'holding up rather well'," he says to the reluctant Santa, "but I'm not about to load her up with toys and drive her around the world"). Davis' tight, disciplined slapstick-heavy body language, which I admired in Jasper Station, minimizes the often mechanical nature of Bozidar's language difficulties. "The Devil's Avocado" is a line worthy of Mrs. Malaprop, but many of his mixed bag of misspeakings simply felt troweled on -- there's nothing particularly funny about "a team of wild horseflies couldn't drag it out of me" or "you aren't just whistling Dixie cup."  Tasker is even more limited, but he plays out the limited range of his lines (plays on Gladstone's name, mostly) with a strong visual elfin presence.

Kit Bishop, a character with the kind of knee-jerk problems you expect to find in such a play -- difficult family background (but not too difficult), maybe a little too articulate about her teenage angst, impetuous and sullen -- is played with convincing warmth and presence by newcomer Adrienne Fitch, who avoids exaggerating Kit's truculence, and achieves some real warmth with other characters -- especially her moment of contact with Octavia, as she promises not to tell Santa who spilled the beans about her brother's letter, and shows her the locked-little-finger move that binds them.

The play involves a surprising number of other onstage people -- extras, we might call them -- who were (unfortunately, I thought, not identified in the program, or at least in an occasional insert). Five members of a spectacularly inept choir who are converted into competent backup singers for the closing number by Kit; three elves who have nothing much to say but lend some ambience to the workshop, and Kit's non-speaking mother and brother, spirited to the North Pole by Santa and Lou's supersonic sleigh to hear Kit's choir.  All, I assume will be different in each location, and all are clearly part of a conscious effort to connect TNB and the communities it tours to. 

All of that said, there are still problems that made me occasionally uncomfortable.  Kit's difficult childhood is merely waved at, to provide us with a motive for what seems an otherwise pretty unmotivated anger with the world; the opening and closing joke, involving getting people to put on an oversize Santa hat, is lame, and doesn't earn the onstage laughter it gets; the song which climaxes Kit's visit is not only weak, but unnecessary; predictability masquerades as inevitability. 

In spite of all this, though, it's well worth seeing.  And (I don't often say this) take the kids.  They'll miss most of the jokes, and they may miss a lot of the Octavia - Gladstone plot, but they'll love the attempt to manufacture glue,  they'll respond to the physical comedy, and they won't feel condescended to -- and when Gladstone and Octavia dance themselves into a relationship at the end, they may see a little of what can be done to convey a complex and delicate relationship with just bodies. And they may catch a little of the play's sardonic take on the whole Santa myth.

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