Do you ever feel like Christmas is for everybody else, and not for you? Maybe you wonder if this lack of oomph for the holidays is a part of getting old? That your feelings of being missing amongst the festivities is a sign of upcoming mortality.
But that’s crazy, right? You’re overreacting. Maybe it’s just a bit too much egg nog for the night and tomorrow you’ll have forgotten about it.
So, you decide to get out there and do your thing. Hugs to the grandkids, children, animals. Maybe some festive bells or bows? Anyway, it’s Christmas!
And maybe that’s it. Maybe you ghost the eye of the needle and everything is fine.
But for many of us there’s something more to those initial feelings. Like maybe the so-called normal traditions of the season are only the same old misgivings getting rolled out each year and admired? Like something that occurs every time they are unfolded and left to hang in the freezing temperatures – regardless of the level of Christmas cheer one consumes. Something that says that this time of year isn’t as jolly as it makes itself out to be.
A few Christmas’s ago, I found myself alone when the big day came. I decided to see The Last Jedi in theaters. Then I tried to find a Chinese food restaurant that was open so I could buy chicken lo mein. My car was like the Millennium Falcon. I avoided all dangers from the Sith, but I never found the food and went home unfulfilled.
A couple years later the new Matrix movie came out and I was once again looking for that Christmas spirit. I spot polled people on the potential of making my movie and drive-about a holiday tradition. Finally, my soon-to-be fiancé, Rachel, and my adult son, Sage, said they’d brave the COVID stricken outside and watch a movie with me. This time I found an open Chinese take-out place, but they did not make lo mein.
Maybe all traditions do die.
So, while I look through movie listings, I think that even Santa Claus must have to pack it in occasionally and sit on the couch with a box full of Pringle cans and tell the elves hovering around him that he’s sick of the same old, same old.
“I’d like to see something different this time around,” he hollers, grabbing the Gingerbread man and taking a bite.
“What else do you got?”
Well, perhaps this will do the trick.
“The Birth of Santa” is opening at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1 at the American Repertory Theater of Western New York located at 545 Elmwood Ave. Subsequent shows will be presented on Dec. 2nd, 9th, 15th, 16th, 22nd and 23rd. 5 p.m. shows will occur on Dec. 3rd, 10th and 17th.
You can tell the old man that It’s well-worth the ticket price.
The play is about an artist that found fame with a simple idea of what a baby Santa would look like and, wow. Faster than Donald Trump’s hand on the Tweet button, the artist had to go and become famous with his now-famously painted canvas also-called, “The Birth of Santa.”
So now there’re expectations. What will he cook up for this Christmas holiday? Does he even want to? What more can be added to the idea that the holidays are special? And are they special in the same way every year? What about the Christmas blues? What about all those feelings that come in just as caroling starts piling from the eaves and you wonder if it’s just you?
Am I the only one who’s not happy?
In the classic formula for a holiday comedy, “The Birth of Santa” brings three visitors into the artist’s tortured journey. The little drummer boy – all grown up! The ghost of Norman Rockwell. And the mysterious ghost of Christmas future, Mr. Commercialism and his art robot, Brutus.
The premise of the script? The Nazis won the war and secretly subverted the holiday spirit to worship the buying and selling of all our resources. Presidents proclaim the best way to fight terror is by shopping at the nearby mall and algorithms for spending habits are created by the best minds of our generation.
Well, not exactly.
Directed by Eric Mowery, “The Birth of Santa” was inspired by some of the first-time director’s own artwork. Mowery was asked to allow the incorporation of his paintings into what would be a holiday-play, but what that play would be was at that point unknown.
Enter Justin Karcher, playwright and poet, hot off from his readings around town, devoid of any doubt on the topic of Josh Allen’s arm and you start to see something materialize as it always does this time of year. Santa is getting off the couch and putting on his coat. It should be a full house tonight.
Andrew Zuccari plays the protagonist of the show – the Artist – besieged on all sides by his money-grubbing Scrooge of a Manager, David Wysocki, his worried Significant Other, Danielle Burning, and his own brand of painter’s block. His newest holiday show is being blasted by the holiday joy hungry public and with cancel-culture, his name has become instant mud.
That guy who did “The Birth of Santa”? Oh yeah, he’s come down with something. He’s lost it. No Christmas from that guy again.
But like any holiday tale worth its salt, and to the benefit of our collective funny bone, there’s a degree of magical intrigue in the air. The Artist’s plight isn’t just a failed career, but a genuine threat to his life. There are people who will kill to keep the public’s wandering eye away from the man-behind-the-curtain, and without the Artist’s cooperation, that feeling of “joy” that turns every American into a table of monetary expenditures is in danger of slipping.
And that’s not an option, says the ghost of the machine.
However, neither is the hilarity ensuing from this genuinely funny, yet thoughtful, answer to and deconstruction of the holiday blues.
Turning tragedy into laughter, Karcher said in café interview that he wrote the script of the play over the course of a weekend, but the events leading up to writing “The Birth of Santa” had been building up since summer.
In a way, Karcher tried to wipe away pain in his own life through the penning of the script.
“It’s been an interesting year,” he said candidly. “My dad died. I got a divorce. My life, for all intents and purposes, just fell apart numerous times.”
“So, during one of those manic break-outs, I wrote a lot of plays.”
The cast, including Mowery, rallied around Karcher in his time of need.
“There is not a guy who looked out for me more than Justin Karcher,” Zuccari said. “So, I’ll always appreciate him for that.”
Mowery noted that Karcher and himself have been friends for years.
“I’ve worked with Justin Karcher for – what is this? – the twentieth project?” Mowery said. “We always have a blast. I got really lucky, in that this guy (Karcher) cast a show expertly well. I am directing it, but they’re doing all the work. I just fell into a really amazing cast.”
One of the alleys the play brings the audience into is the role of the Significant Other. Burning’s depiction of what is basically the story of Bob Cratchit’s wife – a piece of the puzzle missing in the traditional play – is entrancing to watch and wins over the skepticism of the Scrooge-bah-humbug crowd that don’t see anything new here.
“It’s exhausting to date a creative person,” Karcher said of that particular sub-plot which ultimately becomes the center of opposition to the Artist’s own wheel of spokes turning towards calamity.
“It’s not easy,” Karcher continued. “I’ve dated creative people. I obviously am a creative person … For someone to willingly walk into that world? It’s a lot that, that partner has got to handle.”
The other characters also play well. Wysocki, Rick Lattimer who plays Norma Rockwell, and Ian Michalski, who plays the middle-aged drummer boy, round off the set with funny, but thought provoking renditions of the script.
Karcher said he had the idea for the little drummer boy before “The Birth of Santa” was even conceived.
“In all honesty, it’s time for us to tell new Christmas stories,” Karcher said. “It’s time for us to represent different narratives. … What do the holidays really mean when you’re constantly just seeing the same holiday shit over-and-over again? You don’t have opportunity to really reflect on how joy is different. How joy changes. What does cheer mean?”
“Christmas is not the same for everybody,” he concludes.
As for me, I still have not found the perfect movie for my holiday retreat. But I know there’s good eating for the soul out there, solet’s all chow down! Maybe the little drummer boy will play a new song and Tiny Tim will burst out laughing as he tries to get his line out.
“May the muse bless us,” he’ll say. “Every one!”
Lead image: (Left) Eric Mowery (director and cast as Mr. Commercialism) presents Brutus (Maryna Seufert) his art robot to the Significant Other (Danielle Burning) and the Manager (David Wysocki) on the ART of WNY stage during a rehearsal, as the City of Buffalo is nestled in a snow-induced recreation of what the covid pandemic was like during Christmas. (Photograph by Benjamin Joe)