Monday, December 08, 2008

metaDRAMA: "TheTruth About Santa," The Truth About Theater

Photo/Colin D. Young

O, have no worries dear singing elves Jim-Jim (Jeff Gurner) and Jo-Jo (Clay Adams), and by extension, writer/actor Greg Kotis of Urinetown fame: we most certainly do not find this "apocalyptic" Christmas tale to be boring, stale, or slow. But despite the positively berserk direction from John Clancy, we--or at least I--find it difficult to formally "review" The Truth About Santa. That's because somewhere in my stocking of a heart, there's a lump of coal shrieking out a warning about the high-school staging, the over-the-top acting, and the not-always-justified mania. This is, for all effects, a Christmas tale meant in heart for children but only graphically appropriate for adults, and while I laughed, it wasn't whole-heartedly, and it certainly came with some reservation at the pageant play amateurishness of it all. It's one thing to send up a style, it's another to indulge it and get lost within.

And yet, here's why you must see The Truth About Santa. It is one of the most sincere screwball comedies to hit the stage in some time, thanks in part to the endearing Trachtenburg effect: Greg Kotis has brought his family and friends together to put up this show, and things that are wholly indulgent now seem cheery and delightful. Greg plays an alcoholic named George who finds that his wife, Mary (Ayun Halliday) has been cheating on him with Santa (Bill Coelius), and that his kids, Freya and Luke (India and Milo Kotis) aren't really his. This is his real family, so the lack of "professional" training is endearing here (although it might not fly in a formal review). As for Coelius, he's a long-time Kotis "Krew" member, from Eat the Taste to Pig Farm, if not further. Mrs. Claus is played by Lusia Strus, who worked with Kotis on Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind in Chicago.

Which brought me to my metadramatic musings and problematic review's solution ('tis the season, after all): what is the value of sincerity in art? That is, what won't I let a show get away with when it does it with an honest smile and a wink? (Do not mistake this for Palin-level pandering.) In this case, the screaming exposition and exaggerated lines are adorable, and it allows Kotis to skewer Christmas myths (particularly about Christ's birth and the pagan rites of solstice that far preceded our commercial holiday) without skewering himself. The elfen songs that would grow cloying and gratuitious under normal circumstances I was able to take just for what they were, especially when sixth-grade India Kotis took the lead.

The more I see theater, especially working as a critic, the harder it is to take things at face value, and in recent months, I've started to give out harsh reviews, on shows like As We Speak and now Three Sisters, something I wanted to avoid, as what this industry needs are people speaking for the positive moments too, not just highlighting the bad. But in those cases, I felt justified, for they had lost the essence of theater which lies beneath the debate of "Entertainment versus Meaning": that is, they were no longer true in any form. Even pap like Boeing Boeing was cultured in truth first, truth heavily layered in distortion and comedy. How glad I am, then, to see that The Truth About Santa is able to justify its faults with a healthy dose of Colbert's so-called "truthiness." With all the shows closing on Broadway, perhaps Santa will bring this message of good cheer to all the producers out there--good little boys and girls all--and help us preserve truth in the theater as we march toward a brand new year, a year in which, with a new president and the blinders taken down from our dangerous form of capitalism, we can wake up from our comfortable but reckless hibernation and be proud once more.

UPDATE: For some reason, this article has been linked to by the NetRightNation. Color me confused, and perhaps a little offended. While there are many things for which I have conservative leanings, I'm an Independent who feels strongly about the importance of theater and the arts, and all the education and social improvements tied into that. Do you guys realize that this just perpetuates the belief that conservatives don't read so much as go with their gut, a gut which in this case has somehow eaten (but not digested) this blog? Or, if as I hope you've actually come for the dialogue, then welcome. Let's talk about the importance of truth.

1 comment:

Theatrefolk said...

Truth in theatre is why even in these troubled times, theatre will never die. Those who use theatre will fold or walk away and those who believe in what theatre is, what theatre can be, will rise to the top.

And more so in these trouble times when audiences need sincerity, they won't stand for theatre that lies to them, or is insincere, or smarmy.

It could be a good time for theatre.