Saturday, Dec. 5, 2009

Who Killed Santa? Again

Indie Theatre Comedy Returns This Year in a New Venue

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Now in its second year, Neil Haven’s holiday comedy Who Killed Santa? is being staged in separate productions in Milwaukee and Denver, Colorado. The appeal of the play is difficult to define. On the surface, the premise sounds kind of disinteresting—Santa Claus is murdered at a Holiday party attended by Christmas characters including Rudolph, Frosty, Tiny Tim and the Little Drummer Boy. Darker versions of the characters play for laughs in a decidedly adult take on the icons we all remember from childhood. Okay, it gets points for being a comedy of corrupted children’s characters, but it’s not terribly interesting or sophisticated. At least—not on the surface. The clever thing about Haven’s script is not the cheap jokes or base sense of humor. The real comedy here isn’t terribly obvious. It’s all very inexplicably entertaining seeing these characters in this context and somewhere near the end of the play, you realize that you’ve watched a triple homicide at a holiday party with Rudolph, Tiny Tim and Frosty and the vague sense of the bizarre becomes quite clear. It’s fun and it may be something of a guilty pleasure, but there’s a genuine heart to it all that goes way beyond the rather crude surface level of the comedy.

And then there are the puppets—evidently, when Neil Haven originally came-up with the idea for the show, he wasn’t thinking about puppets. (The Denver production is puppet-free.) And having seen the show with puppets twice, it’s difficult to imagine how the show would run without them. So much of the appeal of the show is seeing hipster, head and torso puppets in an adult setting. Designed by Dan Katula, what the puppets lack in sophistocation they more than make-up for in sheer cuteness. Taking over for Katula as the show’s director, Laurie Birmingham seems to have worked with the actors in a way that has maximized the puppets’ expressiveness. The characterization seems to have improved all around from last year. Much of this probably has something to do with an increased familiarity with the puppets from many returning cast members. Sophia Petropoulos is manages a huge range of emotion with a very intimate and subtle understanding of the basic mechanics of the Rankin and Bass-inspired Rudolph puppet. Nate Press’ loveably dimwitted Frosty is every bit as appealing as it was last year. Amy Geyser plays a very sympathetic Tiny Tim. Geyser has a really good sense of the humanity of a character doomed to be eternally crippled and young, but with the passions of an adult man. The sole human in the mix, Bo Johnson is at his best as Mrs. Claus at the end of the play. Joining the cast are Rick Pendzich as Steve—the little drummer boy all grown-up and Liz Shipe as Chastity—the little drummer girl. In charge of a sexy, Avenue Q-esque puppet, Shipe is fun in a coule of the show’s musical segments. Pendzich is a natural as a puppeteer. He’s found an impressive range of expressiveness in a puppet with a single facial expression. His presence here lends a huge amount of charm to the show. Pendzich has played the nice guy in a variety of different productions. It’s nice to see him playing someone a bit less idealized here –even if he’s doing it through a puppet. There’s nothing intrinsically negative about the character per se—but for some reason the character is pegged as the killer quite often at the end of the play.

The audience gets to decide the answer of the title question with a trio of audience volunteers playing elves. Haven’s done some work on the script in an effort to “spread the guilt,” between the characters in the cast. More often than not, it’s the Drummer Boy who gets chosen. Whether or not the re-writes work will remain to be seen. Opening night’s elected killer was the Little Drummer Boy again . .  .

Neil Haven’s Who Killed Santa? Runs through December 27th at the Bay View Brew Haus.

For tickets, contact Bo Johnson at 414-839-7801  or via email at bojohnson@wi.rr.com

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