IN THE MIDST of December's cheeseball entertainment (hi, Nutcracker), it's always refreshing to see an alternative take on the holiday season. And in the case of Liminal's newest performance, it's refreshing to see a skeptical take on the season.
Liminal's production of Santa is its smallest to date. (Their last production was a well-received 2013 take on Our Town.) Santa clocks in at an hour and manages to cram in a lot during that short time. The script is a 1946 play written by E.E. Cummings, best known for his poetry. It has the faint whiff of Cold War technophobia (a fear that emanates from the writing of many post-war Americans—Ray Bradbury, in particular, comes to mind). As such, sometimes the script—which Liminal stays close to—feels outdated in its snarky comments about the "benefits" of "science."
Santa's characters are few and have familiar names: Santa Claus, Woman, Child, Death. Plot lines are a little confusing: Santa meets Death, and they trade places. Santa becomes a scientist and convinces people to buy a fictitious techno gadget? The Crowd becomes disillusioned; they have been duped, and—in their mob mentality—want to kill Santa. A woman appears in the script at the very last moment. As John Berendzen, Santa's director and Liminal's co-artistic director, puts it, "Turns out E.E. Cummings might not be the best dramatist."
Even so, Liminal does a good job of refreshing the text, and the plot feels secondary to other components of the performance. Leo Daedalus as Death has an especially commanding presence. The use of live projected video of the performance is striking at times, even if it is a little Blair Witch Project in the blown-out close-ups of Santa and Death's face, their eyes wide and staring. It might be "artsy," but it feels earnest, never pretentious. (To get to the Backdoor Theater, you enter through the Common Grounds Coffeehouse on SE Hawthorne; during the quieter parts of the production, you can hear the hiss of espresso brewing beyond the theater door.)
Liminal has been around since 1997, performing off and on about once a year. Living up to the name, Liminal has always produced work on the line between performance art and theater, pushing the sense of what's to be expected from a theater experience. Even though Santa is a small production, it's ambitious in its scope, and in what it attempts—it hits some great notes that make it worth the short hour. That bodes well for the company's future productions. But above all, in their own words, "Do you really need to see A Christmas Carol a fourth time?"