You’re never quite sure which Claus is independent in Jackob G. Hofmann’s meandering, pointless 70-minute video comedy until the very end, and by that point it doesn’t matter. In Best Medicine Rep’s An Independent Claus, Kris Kringle (Terence Heffernan) is a Bad Santa – a crude, womanizing misogynist whose constant traveling companion is a half-consummated six-pack of Coors. Santa burps, yawns and asks you if you like clams; it is his seduction technique.
His wife, Jessica Weinberg Claus (Alyssa Sanders) is no prize, either. Scheduled for a visit with a marriage counselor – the visibly nervous, hugely pregnant Dr. Holly Tannenbaum (Grace Brockway) – she cavalierly uses Christmas Magic to heist the psychologist’s schedule book and cancel out her remaining appointments, so that Jessica can have Dr. Tannenbaum all to herself.
Santa being a no-show, Jessica Claus rips into his many infidelities. As she describes them, Santa’s paramours, all played by Christen Stephansky, appear. There’s Gloria, the virginal real estate salesperson, who tells how Santa made a good girl bad. (Apply air quotes to such words as seem appropriate). There’s Amelia Earhart, the famed aviatrix, who first meets Santa as he flies alongside her. There’s Babette, the French maid, who craves not so much Santa as Barefoot Tom (Heffernan in a preposterous costume), who in this telling is the Clausian assistant in charge of doling out coal. And there is, unsettlingly, Peppermint Stick, an apparently prepubescent elf in Santa’s workshop. In each of these stories there is a common theme: Santa supplied such good lovin’ that it made all his rude skeeziness worthwhile. At a later stage, Stefansky, still in her elf costume, does a brief impersonation (by wearing a mask) of various celebrities who have also done the horizontal bop with Santa.
During these narratives, Santa periodically appears, to underscore his rudeness and skeeziness. (“Guess who’s coming down your chimney tonight!” he promises, or warns, Gloria the real estate agent as she tries to sell him property in the Maldives.)
These narrative accounts take up a little more than half the show’s time; the remainder is a sudden resolution which relies on magic stuff, the existence of which does not become apparent until near the play’s conclusion. I would call it a Deus ex machina, but that would confuse the sacred with the profane, so let’s just call it a Santus ex machina.
The problem with this story – beyond the ones you’ve already recognized from this description – is that the interaction is minimal. It is really a series of monologues, all about the same subject: I met Santa; I was overwhelmed by his sexiness; I got some good loving; and notwithstanding that I was seduced and abandoned, it was worth it. And Santa is standing nearby, going ah-hah, ah-hah.
Serial monologues, done effectively, can result in marvelous theater. I’m thinking in particular of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, but there are other examples. The trick is that each monologue, except the last, must lay out a mystery, and each monologue, except the first, must give you the tools to solve it. With An Independent Claus, there are no mysteries, and thus nothing to solve.
There is another problem: Santa is not (spoiler alert) a real person, or even a fictional one. He is a social construct. You can fiddle around with literary figures – Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Batman – re-contextualize them; change their backstories. But Santa has no backstory, just a function: a fat man in a red suit and a beard lives at the North Pole (an obvious lie) and every December 24 gets in a sleigh loaded with toys for every boy and girl in the world (except the bad ones), and, pulled by flying reindeer, delivers each and every one of those gifts over a 12-hour period by going down every chimney in the world. It is what we tell children, to make them think that if they are good they will be happy at Christmas, despite the poverty in which they live. It is impossible to turn this device into a story, as most writers recognize; when they wrote It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra and his collaborators thought an apprentice angel was more credible than Santa come to life.
The actors take on this script gamely, and Stephansky achieves good separation between her principal characters, but it all seems a little forced. They declaim, rather than let the words flow naturally – although I’m not sure that Derek Jacobi could make some of this text sound natural. Still, I can’t help compare this play to Artistic Director John Morogiello’s Irish Authors Held Hostage, which was also mostly serial monologues, many of them ridiculous. The difference between the two plays, I guess, is that Irish Authors is funny.
I don’t mean to pile it on, but the technical aspects of this video were not of the greatest, either. There is a low-pitched hum throughout most of the production, which would have inhibited my ability to enter the fictive dream, if there was one. On the presentation I viewed, the show stopped midway and started again at the beginning, though I was able to move the show forward to the spot it had stopped. At one point a character is supposed to have a prosthetic leg, but you can see the real one behind her; later she walks to a chair with the prosthetic leg in her hands. This might have been a metatheatrical touch, but before you can have metatheater, you have to have theater.
I give Best Medicine Rep credit for taking on a theatrical project in these dangerous days. It is not an easy task to get actors in a room and have them get into a story while maintaining social distance. But the company ought to get better material than this. There are plenty of plays in the gentle, optimistic comic mien which is clearly this company’s oeuvre – Neil Simon wrote a slew of them, and Michael McKeever is still churning them out. But Best Medicine must do better than this.
An Independent Claus
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An Independent Claus by Jackob G. Hofmann . Directed by John Morogiello . Featuring Alyssa Sanders, Grace Brockway, Terence Heffernan and Cristen Stephansky . Costume designer: Elizabeth Kemmerer . Sound designers: John Morogiello and Stan Levin . Set and light designer: John Morogiello . Rachel Borczuch is the stage manager . Stan Levin is the video editor . Produced by Best Medicine Rep . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.