Some different views of the holidays

Karl Marx, cunningly disguised as Santa, attempts to unionize Minnesota beavers in Bedlam Theater's "Beaverdance."
Image courtesy Bedlam Theater

Around this time of year there are almost as many holiday productions in Minnesota as bodies of water. If you want to watch the ghosts make Scrooge cower on stage, there's no shortage of options. If you prefer ballerinas twirling to Tchaikovsky, take your pick. But if you're looking for something a little different, grab yourself an egg nog, we'll take it from here.

We scoured the region for non-traditional theatrical fare with the potential to induce mild amusement and or bone-tingling embarrassment, raucous laughter and or eye-opening epiphanies; all while connecting to the holiday spirit. Even in a nearly depressed economy, this stuff wasn't hard to find.

An H1N1 Christmas

In Duluth, Rubber Chicken Theatre kicks off it's second annual Holiday Comedy Revue this week. In the spirit of the season, they've dubbed the show "Have Yourself an H1N1 Christmas, or Snufflin' in a Swine Flu Wonderland," and delight in adapting a certain holiday classic to "It's the most infectious time of the year."

Brian Matuszak is the creative force behind Rubber Chicken. He's been doing original and mostly irreverent sketch comedy for 22 years.

"Writing original stuff is fun," he said. "And poking fun at local people in the news, and issues in the news, and stuff, is kind of fun too. It's like a local version of like Saturday Night Live."

There's a lot of Duluth-area inside jokes, as well as digs at Tiger Woods, Northwest Airlines pilots, and a certain motorized chair inspired "Grandma got run over by recliners."

Rubber Chicken
This year's rubber Chicken Holiday Revue is "Have Yourself an H1N1 Christmas, or Snufflin' in a Swine Flu Wonderland."
Image courtesy Rubber Chicken Theater

The troupe is filled with comedic veterans. Some have worked with Matuszak since college days a couple of decades ago.

The venue is called, The Venue. It's the old West Duluth VFW in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and it comes with a bar, which Matuszak said doesn't hurt the comedy one bit.

"It's a great spot. For this type of show; the comedy review is more to a casual type of theatre, and having a drink before the show or at intermission, it's a nice fit," he said.

Rubber Chicken's Holiday Revue opens Friday, with weekend shows through December.

The Seafarer

The Seafarer
Allen Hamilton as Richard and Patrick Bailey as Ivan in the Jungle Theater production of "The Seafarer" by Conor McPherson.
Image courtesy Jungle Theatre

Over at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, a man who thinks he's already living in his own personal hell finds out it could get much worse in "The Seafarer."

Sharky is one of four Irish drunks who've pretty much wasted their lives, and are spending Christmas Eve playing a game of poker while getting blitzed. But a stranger at their table turns out to be the Devil, and he's playing for more than Sharky's money.

"I want your soul Sharky," he says. "I am the sun of the morning Sharky, I am the snake in the garden - I have come here for your soul Sharky, and I've been looking for you all [expletive deleted] day!"

Director Joes Sass said, while the show is filled with boozing and cursing, the play glows with the holiday spirit.

"When the devil's got your cards in his hand, all of these local lads have got your back," Sass said. "And it's the gentle moments of grace and friendship and kindness that they display toward each other that reminds you that despite appearances, some of the most foul seeming people are actually the most generous hearted."

The Seafarer combines themes of desperation and redemption, while keeping the audience laughing throughout. It's a mix which Charles Dickens would approve.

Foxy Tann's Beaverdance

Across town in the West Bank area there are two very different views of the holidays.

At Bedlam Theater in Minneapolis, a show called called 'Foxy Tann's Beaverdance,' is on playing. Foxy Tann calls it a Marxist fur trade holiday musical.

"Once you combine Karl Marx with the Voyageurs, it's got to be a holiday show because Karl Marx has a big beard, and he could be disguised as Santa."

Foxy Tann, whose real name is Heather Wilson, is well known for her burlesque shows, but she said this is very different.

Beaverdance is a fantasy which depicts how Karl Marx realized world revolution would be easier if he travelled back in time to North America to get a head start. Somehow he ends up in northern Minnesota trying to unionize beavers.

Bedlam artistic director John Bueche said when playwright Corrie Zoll approached them with the idea it all just seemed to fit together.

"Once you combine Karl Marx with the Voyageurs, it's got to be a holiday show because Karl Marx has a big beard, and he could be disguised as Santa," Bueche said.

The Beaverdance story gleefully sets logic and historical accuracy aside, as well as most of its sense of decorum.

Bueche is in the show, as well as Corrie Zoll who plays Karl Marx, dressed in a Santa suit.

"And the thing was," said Zoll, "as soon as we found Foxy to direct the show, we realized we could cut some costs because right away the beaver costumes got a lot smaller."

It's an evening of slightly raunchy silliness, filled with double entendres. So who should see it? One cast member said it's a show for all the family, as long as everyone is older than 14.

Zoll describes the Beaverdance this way: "It's a show that your mother would like, but it's probably not a show that you would tell your mother you went to see."

Indian Blood Just yards up the street, a very different view of the holidays is playing out at Theater in the Round.

When Christmas came to Buffalo, New York in 1946, Norman Rockwell's America had reached a pinnacle. After a world war and years of deprivation before that, the country was beginning to gorge on a newfound prosperity.

Playwright A.J. Gurney wistfully drifts back to his post-war teenage years in upper class Buffalo in "Indian Blood." Lynn Musgrave is directing the show for Theater in the Round.

"It truly is about family, and the love that is shared, even among diverse family members," she said.

That diversity begins with 16-year-old Eddie, the narrator, modeled after Gurney himself. He's a self-proclaimed renegade who proudly credits his rebel nature to his supposed Seneca Indian heritage. Eddie kicks off the action when he's suspended from school for drawing a dirty picture.

Indian Blood
Eddie and his grandmother confront a changing world in Theater in the Round's "Indian Blood."
Image courtesy Theater in the Round

There's Eddie's bachelor uncle who enjoys relaxing in the steam room. His grandfather is a city patriarch and his grandmother deeply distrusts immigrants. And then there are Eddie's parents:

"Where's that boy?" asks his Dad.

"I think he's on the telephone," responds Mom.

"On the telephone, on Christmas night?"

"I think he's talking to one of the Nussbaumer girls," says Mom with a small smile.

"So he's interested in girls now?"

"At least in little Peggy Nussbaumer..." says Mom as her smile gets bigger.

Musgrave said that Gurney loves this family of his that he grew up with, in spite of, and to some extent because of their prejudices.

In Indian Blood, says Lynn Musgrave, A.R. Gurney has written a holiday love letter to his family, warts and all. But you also sense the paint in Gurney's Rockwellian portrait is beginning to chip.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.