"Okay, now do it like an angry owl."
Scott Braidman is staging publicity photos for Santacide. In this one, the character Holly, an angry teenager, is leaping over the living room couch during an adolescent tantrum. She's no ordinary teen, though. Her uncle is Santa Claus himself, and this living room is situated at the North Pole.
The play is a spoof murder mystery by local funnywomen Hilary Price and Kelsey Flynn. It will be performed by the August Company at the Academy of Music this Saturday. The evening includes an intermission sing-along with the Cranky Carolers and locally based singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, featuring numbers from her latest album, Fuck That. (This holiday show is not suitable for Tiny Tim.)
A parody of the classic isolated-house Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Santacide also turns every kitchy Christmas story on its head. The cast of characters includes a tight-fisted Saint Nick; a cross-dressing elf; a randy, tippling Mrs. Claus; and in place of the little child wide-eyed with wonder, a teenage reindeer rights activist who's pissed off at the whole thing.
Braidman, the show's director, finishes the photo shoot with a dysfunctional-family tableau and sets up a run-through of one of the first-act scenes. Santa has been stabbed to death with an oversized candy cane. While two trench-coated detectives are inspecting the offstage crime scene, the Head Elf of North Pole Enterprises bickers with Milo, the seasonal-help elf, who is comforting the not-too-grieving widow.
Everyone, of course, has a motive for offing Santa. Head Elf (played by Amy Koske) because Santa has refused to fly the sleigh tonight (did I mention it's Christmas Eve?) unless the Big Toy Corporation gives in to his ever-increasing demands. Milo (Steve Angel) because he's having an illicit affair with the boss' tipsy wife. Mrs. Claus (Linda Putnam) because her husband's neglect, born of his single-minded drive for power and profit, has driven her to drink and into the arms of another man, er, elf. And Holly (Rachel Braidman) because—well, just why is she pissed off?
The script is jammed with verbal jokes and puns, and spiced with broad physical comedy. The scene being rehearsed contains a complex piece of slapstick mayhem. Head Elf comes in through a door, knocking Mrs. Claus over, and exits through the adjacent kitchen door, which reopens just in time to clock her again. Angel, who doubles as fight arranger, works through the pratfall choreography with Putnam and Koske.
"When the door hits you the first time, Linda, you go up against the wall and Amy walks right by you. Then as you stagger toward the kitchen, the door hits you again and you fall down behind the couch." The sequence is worked several times to get the timing—door, slam, exit, stagger, door, slam, fall—just right.
When the pair of sleuths enters the scene, Detective Detective (Sheila Siragusa) carries the confectionery weapon, followed by her son, apprentice detective Jimbo (Mark Teffer), a queasy youngster who's left most of his lunch on the floor of the murder room and is at risk of losing the rest. At a moment when Jimbo bursts into tears and his mother blows his nose, director Braidman works in another sight gag.
"Sheila, you've been holding the bloody candy cane with a rubber glove, then you put it into an evidence bag, and then when Jimbo cries, you offer him the bloody glove to blow into, he notices the blood and starts to throw up again, and you offer the evidence bag to throw up in."
Siragusa is co-founder of the August Company, which in the past few years has established itself as a shrewd interpreter of a variety of theatrical texts and styles. She acknowledges that Santacide is a wide step away from the troupe's previous material—Shakespeare, Chekhov, Albee and the like. But she insists it's in keeping with the company's mission, which is to find "the truth" in a script without losing the fun, and vice versa. "This company has a great capacity to take super-huge slapsticky material and inject it with a kind of truth that really makes it sell," she explains. "We're all about marrying those two sometimes quite separate things: keep the size of performance without losing the truth."
Most of the cast are core members of the tight-knit August Company. The exceptions are Putnam and Tom McCabe (in a key cameo as Santa's corpse), who are reprising their roles from the play's first production, staged four years ago by New Century Theatre. (Full disclosure: I was the director.)
Kelsey Flynn, Valley improv legend and former DJ on The River (WRSI), is also an August Company member, but isn't performing in this one because she is a new mother. I checked in with her and co-author Hilary Price via conference call—Price in the Florence studio where she pens the nationally syndicated comic strip Rhymes With Orange, Flynn at home nursing four-week-old Gram.
This production, its authors have said, is "Santacide 2.0, if not 4.0." After the first outing, Flynn told me, "We picked it up again and went back through it to tighten it up and try to fix all of those things that, as truly neophyte playwrights, we had missed." One character—the original murderer, in fact—was cut. "We realized he had no connection to the other characters. He did not exist in this story other than to kill Santa Claus."
Over the next couple of years they worked on it on and off. They held a couple of private readings-in-progress with the August Company and sought the assistance of a professional dramaturg, Megan Alrutz. "We told her, 'We like what we have, but want to make sure it's as fast and funny as it can be and we're getting all we can out of the characters themselves,'" Flynn explained.
Price added, "She helped us focus on questions like why is each character here? What is the motivation for each character at every moment? For example, why is Mrs. Claus leaving the stage at this point? Our answer at the time was, well, we need to get her off the stage. So we tried to be a lot stricter with ourselves, about why people go off and why people come on, and made sure that was tied to their various motivations."
Even when the playwrights are clear about such things, the actors may still have to wrestle with them. Back at rehearsal, the secret lovers Milo and Mrs. Claus are emerging from the kitchen looking smudged and guilty, straightening their clothing. Braidman stops them and asks, "So why do you two come back on?"
They both look blank, and Putnam offers, "Because it says so in the script?" This gets a laugh from the cast, but starts a conversation about Milo's motivations vis-a-vis the other characters.
"Santa's demise diminishes the significance of Santa and increases the significance of Head Elf," Braidman suggests, "so Milo is coming on to work out his own agenda with Head Elf." As for Mrs. Claus' motivation at this moment, Braidman says, "You don't want to come back on at all. You're trying to keep him in the kitchen, so hold onto the back of his shirt as you enter."
Later in the scene, the two detectives ponder the question that's at the root of all murder mysteries.
"Who do you think did it, Mom?" Jimbo wails. "Why kill the most beloved icon in the history of icons? It doesn't make any sense. Everybody loved him."
"Not everybody loved him, Jimbo," his mother replies grimly. "Someone—and I am not yet ready to say who—nicked the saint. And whoever that person was, whoever kringled Kris, is here at the North Pole right now. Now let's take care of the body. We'll put it outside before it starts to smell."
Santacide: Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m., $15-20, Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton, (413) 584-9032, academyofmusictheatre.com.
Chris Rohmann can be reached at StageStruck@crocker.com.