Its title is a clever play on Tantalus, the high-priced Greek epic that effectively displaced the Denver Center's annual presentation of A Christmas Carol, but theatreMEDINA's Santaless: The Twelve Plays of Christmas proves to be a collection of aimless skits worth considerably less than its $20 admission. Haphazardly constructed and gratuitously vulgar, Erik Tieze's ninety-minute play starts on shaky ground and, save for a poignant episode near the end of Act One, never resembles anything more than an embarrassingly amateur variety show.
From the very first scene, the actors do their level best to keep from being drowned by a rising tide of ill-conceived material. Even so, some in the six-person cast (including a couple who periodically serve as audience "plants") flub lines, sing off key, mug in vain and generally fail to command the Acoma Center's stage. In fact, one performer earns a rare laugh when she steps forward to apologize for the acting and flatly admits that she's tired of appearing in a "suck-ass scene"; another looks more relieved than frustrated when, while floundering through a lame episode, she "discovers" that she's not supposed to be on stage at that moment -- and hurries off with newfound conviction. In addition, punchlines that seem intended to tweak our collective holiday consciousness merely serve as nails in the coffins of predictably crude jokes. When a Borscht Belt-style Frosty the Snowman blusters, "Santa comes but once a year -- no wonder he couldn't have any kids," and a cookie-baking housewife purrs, "Nothing clears the air like the fart of an elf," the professionally priced affair exudes all the class and showmanship of a gathering of adolescents trading one-liners about the facts of life.
Director A. Lee Massaro and the actors do manage to hold our interest during a couple of scenes. (Their efforts are aided by Anna Kaltenbach's tastefully simple lighting design, which effectively isolates some playing areas while nicely accenting several shadowy ones.) The best scene by far is "Yes, Virginia," in which a young man recalls fateful encounters -- at least two of which left him forever changed -- involving a local school bus. Here, performers Stuart Sanks and Marci Shaklee invest playwright Tieze's poetic ode with a humanity that, unlike most of Santaless, has nothing to do with rimshot-style cuteness. And, despite its reliance upon the aforementioned musing about an elf's breaking wind, a sketch called "Christmas (W)rapping" features some intriguing overlaps in conversation between such disparate characters as a downhill skier, a housewife, a techno sales geek and an aging actor. Both scenes demonstrate that Tieze's lyrical impulses, however random or unrefined, are vastly more entertaining than his half-baked attempts at comedy.
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