Death Might Be Your Santa Claus
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
February 18, 2006
Preaching the word of God can be a very lucrative business. If you can pitch the comfort of religion with enough charisma you may find yourself living in a big beautiful house, driving a big fast car, and wearing a big white suit. But at what point does preaching become selling? At what point does this comfort become a commodity? These are a few of the questions explored in Stillpoint Productions’ brilliant and thought-provoking new show, Death Might Be Your Santa Claus.
I tried to put my finger on a main story line but I honestly don’t think there is one. The show consists of several plotlines weaving together to form a picture of the faith industry. We have a couple of WalMart employees who work in the faith-based products aisle along with their overbearing manager who is a storm/rapture tracker in his spare time. There’s a televangelist whose ghostly white makeup looks as put-on as his smile-wink-and-point combo. There’s also a lady who runs an Internet prayer group service for folks who ask for prayers on behalf of everything from help finding their lost car keys to remission of their cancer. And let’s not forget the most famous character in the play, Tammy Faye. She herself is suffering from cancer and befriends a high school football star who is also in the oncology ward. There is also an oncology nurse who delivers some gripping if not down right creepy monologues about her dreams.
But one of the most powerful and intriguing plotlines is also one of the least developed. And I found this odd because it is what inspired the play in the first place.
A man in Dallas named Ole Anthony started a homeless shelter that doubles as a private detective firm. He trains a select few to spy on the local televangelists in an effort to uncover any improprieties. Many local televangelists think him the devil incarnate. His story was published in a December 2004 edition of The New Yorker. However, his story in this play is very minimal and is not as tightly woven in with the other plotlines.
Most of the threads are very clear declarations of the many ways that people handle their faith in the face of adversity. Thankfully, the play, which has been compiled by the company with additional text by Juliana Francis, never attempts to hit us over the head with solutions, nor does it force a single perspective down our throats. However, some of the text is a bit heady and flew past me undigested. Sure, I was able to grasp the themes of faith and corporatism but what I didn’t see was a lot of plot movement through action. The characters mostly talk about their feelings but there is little showing of their feelings through action and/or deeds. But one thing DMBYSC does very well is balance the heavy reality with some lighter comedy. This play is actually a lot funnier than one might think. (At least it was to me).
Director Lear deBessonet blows the doors off this one with some spectacular movement and staging. The physicality of her work reminded me of the work of director Anne Bogart. The combination of movement, from the simplest hand gestures to more complex choreography, lifted me right out of my seat. The space is a multi-level complex and deBessonet uses every inch of it—leading the eye up, down, and all around. And her dazzling ending sequence left me wanting more. Best of all, deBessonet pushes her actors to their limits.
The ensemble creates a cohesive feel to the show. Gillian Chadsey is very funny and even a little endearing as Tammy Faye. Lucy Smith cracked me up as the goth girl working with faith-based products. And there is a moment when Jonathan Co Green as Ole Anthony pauses in the middle of one of his three monologues to deal with a flash of pain caused by radiation poisoning that is so utterly gripping that I swear I could feel his pain. The rest of the ensemble deserves high praise for jobs well done.
Lighting designer Beth Turomsha also deserves praise for her fantastic light plot. Raul Vincent Enriquez backs her up with a great soundscape and Michael Casselli’s set gives us perfect hints of location. The overall production value of this show is well worth the trip downtown.
I had a great time with this show. It is thought-provoking and heady and yet under deBessonet’s direction it is also very theatrical and visually striking. It could stand for a little more character development but I think that will come as this truly exceptional theatre company develops itself.