Friday, November 27, 2009

Kimball's Santa: Christmas with a twist

Despite the name, which invokes the guy who, for better or worse, is the symbol of what we obliquely call "the season," not wanting to offend anyone, you know that “Santa Come Home” is not going to be the kind of warm-and-fuzzy and uplifting holiday schmaltz usually served up at this time of year — not with a guy named Captain Zeus as a main character and definitely not when a guy named Michael Kimball is the playwright. Kimball, of course, is the guy responsible for "I Fall for You," a collection of seven, comedic shorts — including a three-parter about a disembodied penis named Richard — that played the Firehouse not long ago. No, it won't be one of those overly sweet theatrical fruitcakes that some of us crave as soon as the leaves fall off the trees, with those subtle flavors of nostalgia and Christmases past. It will be — it is — a "typical Michael Kimball comedy," says Newburyport director Tim Diering, Which means "absolute madness, with a difficult-to-summarize and, ultimately dizzying plot, with seven actors on stage, mostly at the same time, each one with his own agenda, each one trying to steamroll over everyone else ("Making it pretty much like life," says Diering.) with just enough naughty bits to keep it interesting.

It's about ... well, it's a difficult play to summarize, like trying to summarize the weird stuff in anybody's family — love, resentment, strained relationships that color everything that happens, traps that are sprung whenever the family comes together. Not that most families are like this one: Father Philip is an (unhappily) retired children's television star who doesn't know what to do with himself now that he's no longer Captain Zeus. Mother Joan, who had to do it all because old Zeus was always on the road and now, with the daughters on their own, she's finally getting something together for herself, when a suddenly unemployed Zeus is hanging around the house, cluttering up a life that is finally starting to make sense. Two daughters, Susanna, a psychiatric nurse with a marriage on the ropes and locked wardful of unresolved anger, with Mom and with Sister Athena, who, within the family dynamic, is sweetness and light. It's Christmas Eve. The family is coming together to stage a Christmas show that will be broadcast live to Taiwan. No one is especially happy about doing the show, except for Philip/Zeus, who is jonesing bigtime. He needs a fame fix. Both the "girls" bring news and uninvited dinner guests (Athena, a guy old enough to be her father, and Susanna a younger mysterious, hyperactive ... what, psychiatric patient?) will test the family to its dysfunctional limits.

The show is about people "casting off their assumed roles in life," says Diering, who directed Kimball's "I Fall for You" at the Firehouse this summer and took it on a short tour that ended at this year's Fringe Festival. Which is true enough, but not quite tough enough, says the playwright. “It’s about people throwing off roles that have been hammered into them, that have pigeoneholed them and given them a false sense of security,”says Kimball, who wrote several successful novels and screenplays before turning his sights to the stage. “Santa” is actually Kimball's first play. (“Submit,” a historical drama about the founding of York, Maine, was co-written with Jennifer Saunders.) He wrote it in 2004 — and has been rewriting it ever since. (It's "mostly done" now. It's gotten to the point where, in this production, there was an animated discussion with an actor about the use of the article "a" in one of his lines. "It really made a difference," says Kimball, who teaches creative writing in the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA program. He originally wanted to cast Diering in the lead role. Diering, who the with the Playwrights Intensive play development series at the Actors Studio, said he was more interesting in directing ("Either way I was going to do the play," he says.). The playwright signed off. "I like his style," says Kimball, whose drama "Ghosts of Ocean House" was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2007 and was recently banned from the Utah State Theatre for its themes of incest, madness and religious domination. "He's very positive, very reflective and incredibly knowledgeable."

The Players Ring production will feature a core of Kimball veterans. Gregg Trzaskowski (Philip) and Lisa Stathoplos (Joan) both performed in Portsmouth theater's production of Kimball's "The Secret of Comedy." Stathoplos has also directed his "Best Enemies." Christine Penney played in Kimball’s "Hideaway" at The Ring last fall. Newburyport actress Tracy Bickel plays the troubled Morgan, a character who "has to be crazy and impish in a troubled way," says Diering. "It's difficult, but she got the character exactly, but way way more." Alan Huisman, fresh from an Act One production of “Over the River and Through the Woods” at the Firehouse, plays Gordon. CJ Lewis plays Tom, Susanna's husband; Caitlin Kelty-Huber plays Athena, the "good" daughter.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: New York Theatre Company will stage Michael Kimball's "Santa Come Home" Nov. 27 to 29 and Dec. 4-6 at the Players Ring, 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth, N.H. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors. For reservations, call 603.436.8123 To buy tickets online, click here.

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