Monday, Dec. 15, 2008

A Review of, "Who Killed Santa?"

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Milwaukee’s newest theatre space rests on 1024 South 5th Street. It’s a novel location for a theatre. The upper south side location was once home to Spiral Theatre and still houses DIY venue Darling Hall, onetime haunt of Insurgent Theatre. Not far from either of those locations somewhere amidst a number of quality Mexican restaurants and the giant glowing question mark that used to be Club Anything, right across from a liquor store is Jimmy Dragolovich’s newly-minted Carte Blanche Studios.

I was immediately impressed when I walked through the door. The spacious lobby area leading to the box office features an old phone booth and an ample amount of coziness. Just around the corner is a vast gallery/pseudo-bar area complete with paintings of a style familiar to anyone who has been to a café on the east side in the past 15 years. (I’m not sure why.)

As polished as the space looked, it has the kind of emptiness that gives it a “work in progress,” kind of feel. Approaching the bar, I noticed that the only things available were coffee and soft drinks. The gentleman behind the counter, who turned out to be Jimmy Dragolovich himself, said that they still haven’t built the actual bar that will inhabit the space. Once they do THAT, they’ll get a liquor license. It’s unfortunate that there is no alcohol available for the show currently being performed there. A hipster holiday puppet show called Who Killed Santa? is the kind of thing that would probably excel with a little bit of alcohol in the audience. Dragolovich seems like a really nice, really approachable guy. He spoke of the exhausting work of transforming the space—a former machine shop into a public space. Thick layers of filth had to be removed from the floor.

The doors to the theatre itself opened and a relatively young audience filtered into a remarkably comfortable space complete with classic theatre seats and a decent rake. A booth with a circular table can be seen on the same level as the tech booth, which strikes me as a clever little novelty for a studio space. Once everyone had settled-in, a door was closed, lights dimmed and the show started.

Who Killed Santa? is light, irreverent comedy that plays on the audience’s familiarity with a number of cultural icons that pop up every holiday season. The script by Neil Haven balances some pretty witty dialogue with equal parts easy and esoteric humor. Things move along at a brisk pace in a plot driven by comic tensions between classic holiday characters at a Christmas party at the North Pole hosted by Santa. Guests start to show up one by one and things start to get weird. At some point, the little drummer boy and Tiny Tim (or was it Frosty?) are going out to bury the corpse of the Tooth Fairy and one is left with the feeling that things would make a bit more sense with a higher blood/alcohol level. Too bad the show had to come before a liquor license . . .

This is the kind of show that really benefits from a highly vocal audience, but does not necessarily require one. The cast is really impressive. Bo Johnson plays Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Mrs. Clause and a police detective. He’s the only one not actually represented by a puppet, making him seem something like a special guest on a particularly twisted episode of the Muppet Show. To me, Johnson’s always seemed to have a strange passing Midwestern American resemblance to Eric Idle in stage presence and comic delivery. Here he is in drag as half of the characters he’s playing and the resemblance is a bit more palpable. The show offers Johnson the ability to improvise, an opportunity that he takes full advantage of—he’s a natural with improv, which comes as little surprise having seen him in a number of productions over the years.

Much like the last adult puppet show (Night of the Living Dead at Bucketworks) the non-human cast of this show largely consists of floating torso puppets. One hand worked the head and mouth while the other represented one of the arms. The puppets represented holiday characters all caught in the throes of eternal youth save one: the little drummer boy. While looking remarkably young for someone just over 2000 years old, he had aged to be somewhere in his 20’s or 30’s. He looks like a typical heavy metal drummer—a visual gag that never quite manages to get old. He’s played by Travis Knight in his first real experience with a puppet onstage. Like all of the other puppets, the little drummer puppet lacks any facial expression, which means that the actor’s facial expressions, clearly visible from the audience, serve as the emotional indicator of the character—one looks both at the puppet AND the actor to get the total character—an arrangement that works much better than one might expect. Most of the puppets end up having more in common with a costume than a traditional puppet, as the audience takes visual cues from the puppets and perhaps subconsciously superimposes them over the actors’ performances.

Nate Press plays a dim-witted nice guy Frosty the Snowman. I spite of his overall affability, everybody makes fun of Frosty, which would normally seem like a cheap ploy by the playwright to illicit sympathy for the character, but Press does such a good job of making him likeable that he manages to overcome the script and seeming genuinely nice.

Rebecca Phillips plays one of the smallest puppets in the show: Tiny Tim—a flawed guy caught somewhere between being a nice guy and being kind of manipulative. Phillips adopts a cute cockney accent for the character, who comes across as a gimpy artful dodger. Eternal youth is particularly nasty on a character who really just wants to be an adult.

Sophia Dhaliwal is a lot of fun as an alcoholic Rudolph with something to hide. Patterned after the Rankin and Bass TV special version of the character, Rudolph seems to have the greatest range of motion and thus the greatest puppet-ness of all the puppets--a distinction that Dhaliwal uses to great effect. There’s a Velcro strip on his right hoof that allows him to look rather classy drinking from a martini glass. As I recall, the puppet lacks hindquarters, but Dhaliwal moves him across the stage in loping motins that allow the imagination to fill-in for the rest of the body. Dhaliwal manages a fascinating arc of emotion with the puppet as we see Rudolph gradually get more and more intoxicated in the course of the play. The moments where Rudolph is passed-out and half passed-out are absolutely priceless. Dhaliwal is a great deal off fun here.

Amy Geyser rounds out the cast as Chastity—the newly-introduced Little Drummer Girl who no one seems to trust. Geyser is in innocent new girl mode with the character, which suits her quite well. Geyser’s wide-eyed innocence gives considerable depth to the dynamic of the ensemble, providing just enough conflict between the characters to set things in motion.

Near the end of the play, three people from the audience are chosen to play the role of elf jurors deciding which character committed the murder. This sets-up a variable plot ending that could be interesting for those happy enough with the show to come back multiple times.

Who Killed Santa? closes next weekend with series of late-night shows: Friday and Saturday (19th and 20th) at 10:30 pm and Sunday (21st) at 7:30pm. All shows are at Carte Blanche Studios on 1024 South 5th Street.

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