Santa’s Helper follows Jack (Joel White), a middle-aged serial child molester, as he kidnaps 8-year-old Jim (Jarrett Ley) on Christmas Eve. Moved by something about the boy, Jack claims to be Santa Claus and offers Jim the chance to be his helper, which Jim eagerly accepts. Jack then puts aside his ill intentions and takes Jim with him on a journey of redemption involving his past, present, and future. (The playwright claims inspiration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.) We then jump to some years later, where a troubled adult Jim (Greg Benson) visits Jack in prison in an attempt to understand Jack’s history, which unfolds through flashbacks, and what happened that night.
This is the general idea, anyway, but the truth is, Cassady Kay’s script doesn’t go much further than general ideas. The chronological jumping about feels unfocused as a plot device, and the characters are barely defined, with only a few of them even having names. Now, this might be a deliberate choice on the playwright’s part—in which case, fair enough—but then we’re in the territory of a morality pageant, and subject matter like this deserves more subtlety than that.
Moreover, the script has a couple of plot holes, as well as some downright improbabilities which are required by the story but which ring false enough to damage credibility.
For example: it’s necessary to the plot that Jim believe that his abductor is, in fact, Santa Claus. But over the course of the night, with Jim in tow, Jack proceeds to quickly abandon his already-beardless Santa costume, transport the child in a dingy car while having him wrap a gift in newspaper, visit a slum to end his relationship with a 14-year-old girl, and top off the evening by heading to the cemetery to rant at his father’s grave. The fact that young Jim never questions this man’s claim to be Santa renders him sub-moronic.
Laurie J. Wolf’s direction doesn’t take great measures to bolster the audience’s good faith. The design aesthetic is minimalist; this is par for the Fringe course, to be sure, but one of the pleasures of Fringe is seeing what creativity can be fostered within such limitations, and Santa’s Helper does not impress on that score. Costumes are bare-bones, which is fine, given that these are more archetypes than characters, but they are applied inconsistently when the story jumps to a flashback, or an actor shifts to another character. Scene changes are done either in long, silent blackouts, or, more often, in full light during preceding or subsequent scenes, with no attempt whatsoever to mask them.
Many of the actors do double or triple duty as younger or older versions of the main characters, and while this idea has some potential—i.e., to underscore the cyclical nature of child abuse—the end effect is shoddy. It’s also confusing, as there is no apparent differentiation in acting or design to show us who we’re watching.
This isn’t to say that some members of the cast aren’t doing their best with it. White does credible, if not always gripping, work as the conflicted Jack; his delivery of a defensive speech likening children to elves reduces the cringe factor that it might otherwise have. Maggie Seegers plays a couple of different little-girl characters with endearing charm. And Eric Nold exhibits a nice presence and intensity as a young victim of Jack’s, and equally so as an older, more sinister incarnation of the same character.
It takes artistic courage to take on a subject as sensitive as this, and that should be noted. But the artist’s responsibility is then that much greater to ensure that the piece is thoughtful, nuanced, and comprehensive. Santa’s Helper, I have to say, comes up very short on all of these.
Written by Cassady Kay
Directed by Laurie J. Wolf
Presented by Santa Play Artists
Reviewed by David Winkler
running time: 100 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?