The (sub)Liminal case for Santa
The experimental theater troupe imagines the jolly old elf via e.e. cummings and a character called Death
Oregon Arts Watch
December 4, 2014
By Marty Hughley
Santa Claus will never die.
Maybe that’s because of his mythic, iconographic and perhaps spiritual powers (not to mention the commercial weight he throws around). Or maybe, as some will insist, he doesn’t really exist, and therefore isn’t alive in the first place.
In any case, the jolly old elf, or whatever he is (or isn’t), appears to have immortality all sewn up, at least if you note the seasonal theater offerings at this time of each and every year.
How much of a lock does he have on the popular imagination and the December events calendar? Get this: Liminal is doing a Christmas show!
Of course, Christmas-themed plays are standard-issue for most theater companies, and since Jesus himself, however joyful, gives off such an ascetic vibe, Santa is the point man of choice for seasonal entertainment. Still, Liminal Santa comes as something of a surprise: Liminal Performance Group isn’t a company in whose company you’d expect to find the big guy. Not the kind of group that has to fill set slots in a subscription season, it mounts productions at irregular intervals, in varied spaces, and has been known for its experimental bent. But even those who live on the fringe like to come in from the cold once in a while.
“We’ve done a lot of experiments with walk-through environments and the like, and we’re kind of interested in going back to a conventional theater style a little bit,” says Liminal’s co-artistic director John Berendzen. “Doing Liminal Presents Gertrude Stein in 2012 was as far as we could get from convention, and that was a very immersive project, and now I just want to go back and see what we can do in the other direction. This will be our second show in a row that’s more or less sit-down straight theater.”
Last year the group surprised theatergoers with a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, bringing a few interpretive liberties to that well-worn yet still valuable classic. This time it’s holiday fare, though from the unusual vantage point of e.e. cummings.
Liminal’s Santa clause: Composite photo by Sumi Wu and Leo Daedalus
Directed by Berendzen, Liminal Santa primarily consists of cummings’ 1946 one-act play Santa Claus: A Morality. In between its five short scenes, though, Berendzen uses bits of other cummings texts as “knee scenes,” that is, interludes that serve as joints from one main action to the next. The show will be staged at the Backdoor Theatre on Southeast Hawthorne, Thursdays through Sundays, Dec. 4-21.
Get set for what the group is billing as “good clean modernist holiday shenanigans.”
“It has cummings’ odd use of language and sense of the absurd, but it has a sense to it; it’s a plot of ideas,” Berendzen says of the primary text, in which Santa Claus gets advice from — and eventually switches apparent identities with — Death. At the outset, Santa is a bit bedraggled, especially by comparison to Death, who Berendzen describes as “a One-Percenter, a dapper, aristocratic, capitalist daddy.” Santa complains that he has so much to give and no one will take. Death replies that he has so much to take but nobody will give. “We are not living in an age of gifts: This is an age of salesmanship, my friend,” the skeletal man tells the fat man.
“It’s like a contrast of life and death, good and evil, love and cynicism,” Berendzen says. “You can tell it was written during a time of high optimism about science, and cummings is taking his digs at that outlook. Death tells Santa that what he needs to do is become a knowledge salesman, a scientist. It’s really quite relevant.”
While Santa Claus is the star, Death really is the more intriguing character here. He speaks, sometimes, in lofty verse, as in this description of an unreal world — our’s — where Santa’s gifts aren’t valued:
Imagine, if you can, a world so blurred
so timid, it would rather starve itself
eternally than run the risk of choking;
so greedy, nothing satisfies its hunger
but always huger quantities of nothing —
a world so lazy that it cannot dream;
so blind, it worships its own ugliness;
a world so false, so trivial, so unso,
phantoms are solid by comparison.
Yet the gent can sling a little lingo, too, telling Santa at one point, “I’ve got a heavy date with a swell jane up the street.”
“It’s an interesting meeting between high style and a little bit of slumming; it has a kind of bawdy, earthy aspect,” Berendzen says. “It allows us to do the presentational thing, but within that, the characters are very human and real. The text is in iambic pentameter, but it has a really informal quality, which we’re emphasizing.”
That “presentational thing,” in this case, relies mostly on costumes (by Imago Theatre stalwart Sumi Wu) and lighting (by Rory Breshears) in a scenic design that leaves the black box very black — partly, we presume, to make Death feel at home, but more importantly to facilitate a “dimensional video landscape” by Ben Purdy.
“This is, in a way, very much about the theater, about the lights and costumes and the environment that’s created,” says Berendzen, who also has composed music for the show. “It’s like, if you’re going to break the fourth wall you first have to establish the fourth wall. You can’t really do this stylized morality play if you’re not in that (explicitly theatrical) environment.”
Will such theatricality be enough to bridge the gap between Liminal’s avant-garde-ish reputation and the sort of audience that might otherwise go to see yet another version of “A Christmas Carol”? Berendzen isn’t yet sure. He didn’t choose Santa to sell out and cash in on holiday spending, after all, but at the same time he’d like an audience.
“There’ve been times when we’d spend a whole year developing a show and a total of 200 people would see it,” he recalls. “But I am interested in bringing more people to experimental theater, because I think it’s worthwhile and it’s not as difficult to appreciate as they might think.
“But you know, I just sent out an email blast on Black Friday about a Christmas show that’s about the problems of Christmas. So, I’m not blind to the ironies.”