When I was affiliated with Lowell House at Harvard College, each year the dining hall would witness an elaborate yule log procession. Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion who is co-head of the undergraduate dorm complex, explained that instead of arbitrating among various faiths’ holiday traditions, “we decided to go back to the old pagan bottom line.”
Of course, as Professor Eck understands better than most, there actually is no such thing as a “pagan bottom line.” The farther back you trace legends, traditions, and stories, the more complicated things get. Today, thanks to globalization, the world has a single Santa; but as Jon Ferguson and John Heimbuch discovered when they tried to get to the bottom of the Santa story, the man we now know as Santa Claus has many ancestors, from many different cultures.
That means that the origin story the director (Ferguson) and playwright (Heimbuch) tell in S. Gunter Klaus and the Story Before is just one of many, and appropriately, there’s a bit of an arbitrary feel to the way the show unfolds. The play is set in a remote Norwegian village, and framed as a story being told to the audience by the residents of that village. Ferguson often uses framing devices and fourth-wall-breaking asides as means not to undercut the magic of stagecraft but to highlight it: the story is real, he makes clear, just so long as we all agree to pretend it’s real. Christmas itself, this production implicitly suggests, is one big play in which billions of people participate each December.
|s. gunter klaus and the story before, playing through december 23 at the southern theater. for tickets ($22) and information, see southerntheater.org.|
Sound heady? It is. S. Gunter Klaus is a rich and surprisingly challenging show. The story centers on a quest undertaken by three children (Elaine Patterson, Braxton Baker, and Keenan Schember) who need to undo a darkness (personified by multiple actors) that has been literally let out of the bag and is threatening to envelop the world. The kids’ helpmate is a hermit named S. Gunter Klaus, a coal merchant who also, for reasons that were unclear to me, delivers gifts to the villagers each year. In a climactic confrontation, Klaus—like Obi-Wan Kenobi—undergoes a transcendent transformation that lifts him above the mortal plane, a tragic but triumphant figure who will return each year to fight the darkness.
The specifics of the mandate and the quest and the conflict get a little confusing, but that’s fine—in any Jon Ferguson show, the plot is merely the tree on which to hang ornaments. The ornaments here are many: moments of goofy humor and simple but haunting visual wonders. The set and props are very sparse, making the Southern stage seem as vast as the tundra. When the children trek across it—especially when represented by their little puppet avatars—it does look like a long way. The costumes by E. Amy Hill are charming; I particularly enjoyed the white-felted gnomes, the villagers’ tall striped hats, and the black-clad darkness, which looks like something straight out of the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement.
The ensemble of actors are uniformly strong, but the show is stolen by Piper Sigel-Bruse, a young actress who plays so many roles I won’t even try to list them (I think that’s even her in the darkness suit) and finds the right pitch for each one. She conveys a genuine heart-on-sleeve enthusiasm with a slightly winking tone that’s perfect for this material.
In his program notes Ferguson says that his goal in S. Gunter Klaus was to create a Santa story that was “darker and more earth based” than most. He and Heimbuch have certainly done that, but I found myself wanting the show to come unfettered, to leave the earth (and its earthy humor) behind and lift into the transcendent space Tim Cameron’s warm, spacious score keeps pushing it towards. Despite its uncluttered stage, S. Gunter Klaus is a show crowded with incident and dialogue; when making a new myth, it might be best to start simple.
In the holiday-theater taxonomy, S. Gunter Klaus fits in the same category as Open Eye Figure Theatre’s Holiday Pageant: witty, wordy, and weird productions that re-imagine traditional tales. Both shows take you to other realms, but neither qualifies as escapist entertainment. In the land of S. Gunter Klaus, you’ll need your wits about you—those elves are pretty sharp.
|This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.|