#FamousArtistCancelsChristmas is the hashtag that’s trending as “The Birth of Santa” opens at American Repertory Theater of WNY. This is not good news for the painting.
Andrew Zuccari, the Artist, is well-known for his relatable, comforting and emotional paintings. This Christmas, he decided to try something new, and create a work that was a little bit of a joke.
Unfortunately, it takes only nanoseconds after his painting’s unveiling to realize that no one is laughing. The outrage is immediate. As is the rejection.
We don’t see all these outraged “art” patrons, they are heard in voiceover as the play opens. The Artist is left onstage to deal with all the negative reactions to his work.
Then, we see it: A large-sized canvas depicting a naked man-baby emerging out of the womb wearing a Santa hat. It was intended, the Artist explains, as a humorous homage to masterpieces like Michelangelo’s “Creation” of a full-grown Adam getting the spark of life from the Hand of God.
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Judging by the response, it looks like he will have to pass on his planned “Last Supper” with Santa sharing cookies with his elves.
“I’m in the midst of being canceled,” the Artist laments, and from there the story goes down a rabbit hole of holiday hopelessness, public shaming and personal disappointments, eventually leading to some character-building reflection.
Playwright Justin Karcher is best known locally for his poetry, and we get a nice measure of that here with a helpful narration a la “A Christmas Carol” in free verse. Maryna Suefert acts as the reader connecting the dots while the Artist struggles with Danielle Burning, his significant other, and the pressure of David Wysocki, his manager who is a Scrooge-like man who doesn’t see any reason for an artist trying to spread his wings when money is at stake.
Their personal conflicts are as tangled as last season’s hastily boxed up Christmas lights, so, to help undo the knots, the three are visited by the ghosts of the Little Drummer Boy and Norman Rockwell. It is a journey through all of the unrealistic expectations that holiday could never meet.
The Little Drummer Boy (Ian Andre Michalski), tells it that his career reached its peak when he played for the little boy who would die for our sins. He’s been doing nothing but rump-pah-pum-pumming since then.
Rockwell (a dapper Rick Lattimer) also knew what it was like to be loved by the public for his sentimentality and dismissed by critics who “saw me as the enemy of all art.” Redemption, he now knows, is possible.
After a fast hour and a quarter, we meet the ghost of Christmas presents in the form of a robot (Seufert once again) and Mr. Commerce, played by Eric Mowery who also directed. In a clever nod towards commercialism Eric Mowery mentions that all of the artwork on the set is his, and that one of the pieces will go to a raffle after the show.
There is no hugely compelling plot driving “The Birth of Santa.” Instead, Karcher delivers his cautionary tale through a series of soliloquies, flooding the audience with observations, ideas and philosophies. He leaves it up to everyone, the good and the bad, to figure it out and find their reasons for the season.
American Repertory Theater of WNY presents
What: New holiday play by Buffalo poet/playwright Justin Karcher, on searching for the “reason for the season,” with echoes of Dickens.
Where: Compass Performing Arts Center 545 Elmwood Ave.
When: Thursdays and Fridays 8:30 p.m. (Dec. 16 at 8 p.m.) and Saturdays 5 p.m. to Dec. 23 at 5 p.m.
Summary: A pointed, provocative and kinda weird adventure into the meaning of Christmas, community and “cancellation,” told with flourish and ghosts. For teens and adults over the age of 18.
Tickets: Artofwny.org: $15-20
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