THEATER | Kevin Kling’s “Tales From the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log” entertains, proudly, at the Guthrie Theater


I’ve always been jealous of memoirists who can remember moments from their past with razor-sharp precision. Humorous stories about childhood are at their funniest and most charming when they include details about Uncle Bob’s crazy attire and the exact look on Dad’s face when he accidentally breaks your Christmas present.

Kevin Kling’s recollections of holiday seasons past, in his one-man show Tales from the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log, provide a window straight back into both a personal and collective history. But that window has accumulated some frost over the years. After recounting a tale of a particularly eventful family celebration, he tells us he’s not sure if it happened on one Christmas, or was an amalgamation of many Christmases spent as a boy in the Minnesota. “My memory doesn’t always serve me what I ordered,” he said. “That’s why I’m glad I’m a Minnesotan; because I know whatever it brings me is probably what I really wanted anyway.”

Kling is a storyteller whose work takes on a myriad of forms, from books and plays to commentary on NPR’s All Things Considered. This one-night special engagement at the Guthrie is becoming a local Christmastime tradition, giving us Minnesotans an opportunity to chuckle at our idiosyncratic temperaments and traditions.

The crowd was more energetic and joyful than any I’ve seen at the Guthrie. As we filed into our seats, we were entertained by the Brass Messengers, a raucous ten-piece band who led us in Christmas songs, at one point pitting sections against each other to see who could sing the loudest. The Christmas Carol set provided the perfect backdrop as Kling walked to the front of the Wurtele Thrust stage with a frozen turkey in hand and gave it to a woman in the front row. He soon snuggled into an armchair in the center of the stage, telling stories and listening attentively as special guest Simone Perrin and Dan Chouinard performed musical numbers with the occasional help of the Messengers.

The humor was aimed right at middle-aged Minnesotans, and hit that target perfectly. The whole audience erupted after the first joke, which I had to have my dad explain to me after the show (apparently I don’t spend enough time listening to WCCO radio school-closing announcements). Similarly, since I was born in the 1980s I had to use my imagination to get the jokes about the smell of mimeograph glue and the crowd at the Uptown Bar in the ‘70s, but despite my slight generational disconnect, I found Kling’s wit surprisingly sharp and relevant. He’s incredibly gifted at distilling broad cultural tendencies into witty anecdotes from his own life, all the while maintaining a deep respect for the people he’s poking fun at.

What I found most impressive about Kling’s 90-minute show was his ability to transition from sharp humor to heartfelt sentiment within a few beats, without harsh juxtaposition or cheesiness. As Minnesotans we pride ourselves on being earnest without taking ourselves too seriously, and Kling represents this attitude wholeheartedly.

Frequent Kling collaborator Perrin was as cute as a button as she sang festive old songs, sometimes playing the accordion, and coming out at the end dressed as a Christmas tree, complete with a string of lights and extension cord. Chouinard, also a skilled musician, held court at the piano most of the night, at one point delivering his own sharp but sweet Christmas story. My favorite part of the night was when the three of them teamed up to deliver lines from the Bible, as misspoken by 3rd graders. Some of the lines were pretty salty, but were delivered innocently enough for even the most devout to keep from taking offense.

The fact that this was a one-night engagement gave the show a special spark. Aside from a missed musical cue here and there, the production was in top shape, and I was reminded of how fantastic the sound is at the Guthrie. I hope they continue to do more of these one-off shows in the future. It was a lovely way to feature local talent and to give a treat to the loyal theater-going audience in the Twin Cities. Beyond entertaining me, this show made be thoroughly proud to be a Minnesotan.

This production 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’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.