I'm Dreaming of a Dark Christmas: 'The Woman in Black' and 'The Truth About Santa'
By Kerry Reid
Photo Credit: Adam Wesley Brown in “The Woman in Black.” Photo by Roger Mastroianni
Christmas and ghosts aren’t a contradiction in terms—just ask Charles Dickens. And of course in Christian terminology, the season is about the birthday of a deity that just happens to fall at the same time of year as earlier pagan festivals, such as Saturnalia.
Those caveats aside, two shows hitting Chicago in time for the holiday season seem to be swimming against the tides of glad tidings by featuring ghosts and gods in unexpected ways. And both feature names with long roots in Chicago theater.
Pemberley Productions and PW Productions, which has been presenting the original production of Stephen Mallatratt’s chiller The Woman in Black (based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel) in London’s West End for 29 years, brings in the first U.S. tour to the Royal George Theatre running through Feb. 17. It stars longtime Chicago actor Bradley Armacost as Arthur Kipps, a retired lawyer who hires an actor to help him re-enact and exorcise a horrifying event from his earlier life.
Meantime, Intrinsic Theatre Company marks its first full-length show in Chicago with The Truth About Santa, a 2008 play by Greg Kotis, running November 30-December 29 at the Buena at Pride Arts Center. Kotis, a former member of Chicago’s late Cardiff Giant comedic theater company and the Neo-Futurists, went on to win two Tony Awards (book and score) for Urinetown! The Musical, created in collaboration with composer and fellow former Cardiff Giant member Mark Hollmann.
Kotis and his wife, fellow former Neo-Futurist Ayun Halliday, starred in the original New York production of The Truth About Santa ten years ago, along with their children, India and Milo. Coincidentally, Kotis and Halliday are remounting the show in New York this year as they resurrect their company, Theatre of the Apes. Now-teenaged Milo and Halliday return, though playing different roles than in the original.
Both shows depend upon quick transformations as part of the storytelling mechanism. Armacost and his fellow castmate, Adam Wesley Brown, play all the characters in The Woman in Black. For Armacost, that challenge, as well as the chance to work with the production’s original director, Robin Herford, helped make the choice to join the cast an easy one. He also is looking forward to spending the holidays working in his hometown after being on the road.
Performing a ghost story onstage, without benefit of cinematic jump cuts and effects, isn’t easy. But in a phone interview during the run at the Cleveland Play House, Armacost notes “The audience is very verbal. They will say to us ‘Don’t go there’ when we’re onstage. On paper, there are things we think will be frightening, but you absolutely don’t know until you put it in front of an audience.”
Kotis’ play mashes up several sources, from ancient Norse mythology to It’s a Wonderful Life, in telling the story of Santa and his disgruntlement with life at the North Pole and Mrs. Claus. He’s created a second family with Mary (wife of George) and brings Mary and their kids, Freya and Luke (who have some superpowers of their own), home with him. But Mrs. Claus isn’t having it, and … well, it’s subtitled “An Apocalyptic Holiday Tale” for a good reason.
“We’re talking god fights on stage,” says director David Lew Cooper. “We’re talking Ragnarok.”
Cooper first staged Kotis’ play for What a Do Theatre in Battle Creek, Michigan. He brought it to the attention of his Intrinsic co-founder, Bradley Hamilton. Hamilton was smitten with Kotis’ unique take on the tale. “He took something that is almost sacred, this concept of Santa Claus as this Jolly Old St. Nick, and decided ‘We’re going to keep the individual, but strip away the modern add-ons to him.’ This is an individual who has been around forever. Where did ‘forever’ start?”
Kotis says that initial production in New York was supposed to be his and Halliday’s “version of a wholesome family activity.” He was also inspired in part by the rhetoric around the “War on Christmas,” which he notes “might have been hotter back in 2008. It’s not explicitly about the war on Christmas, but it does delve into ‘Where does Santa come from? Where does Jesus come from?’”
He also admits that some elements of the script were inspired by earlier Cardiff Giant work. For instance, Mrs. Claus has a “candy wine” that will kill a drinker in three gulps—similar to the product “Fatal Food” that featured in Cardiff Giant’s hit musical After Taste way back in 1991.
Cardiff Giant was also highly praised for its use of smart-but-cartoonish physical comedy, which Cooper plans to heavily lean on for this production. “What we’re telling audiences is ‘This is a cartoon, and if you buy into it, you’re going to have a blast. This is a rollercoaster. Strap in.”
That same suspension of disbelief is what Armacost believes has made The Woman in Black such a hit for so long. “You can smell the audience trying to figure out what’s coming next,” he says. “The storytelling aspect is just magnificent. It’s a two-person cast, so you think we can’t possibly take you where a huge cast or a film can take you. And the experience is ‘Yeah, we can.’ We rely on the audience’s imaginations and them wanting to let themselves go.”
To quote Fox Mulder from “The X-Files,” the underlying motto for Christmas might well be “I Want to Believe.” Both The Woman in Black and The Truth About Santa, though they couldn’t be more different in terms of tone, rely upon human belief in the supernatural and superpowers to tell their stories. And both shows offer something different for audiences who don’t crave another helping of traditional figgy-pudding holiday fare.
Says Hamilton, “You have your ‘Nutcrackers.’ You have your ‘Christmas Carols.’ You don’t have The Truth About Santa. This is something that will appeal to someone who wants to go out and see a Christmas show, but doesn’t want to be surrounded by just the happy-go-lucky crowd. This is the young adults’ Christmas show.”