‘The Holiday Special’: ‘The Santa Closet’ and ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ at Baltimore Theatre Project

Baltimore Theatre Project’s The Holiday Special is a coupling of Jeffrey Solomon’s The Santa Closet and Charlie Bethel’s adaption of The Seven Poor Travellers. Both of these one-act, solo-performer shows are Christmas stories. The similarities between them pretty much stop there. While this sort of pairing could be jarring or nonsensical, these two plays compliment each other beautifully. Both were exceptionally well-written and passionately performed, providing a very pleasing trip to the theater. I would encourage you to go see them, but make haste. These charming shows leave Theatre Project this coming weekend.

The Santa Closet

8f68ab28-b1ab-455e-8ff7-082dcd34d653

I’d seen plays before that could be considered part of the genre of documentary theater, but I’d never seen a show that straight-up felt like I was watching an actual documentary until seeing Jeffrey Solomon’s The Santa Closet. The experience was like viewing a piece of hard-hitting investigative journalism and a thought-provoking, heart-touching play all at once. I loved it. Craftily weaving together first-person interviews, newspaper clippings, and media reports, The Santa Closet exposes the tale of innocence, heartbreak, scandal and redemption that make up what the media have called “Santa-Gate.”

Jeffrey Solomon in 'The Santa Closet.' Photo courtesy of Baltimore Theatre Project.
Jeffrey Solomon in ‘The Santa Closet.’ Photo courtesy of Baltimore Theatre Project.

The story follows the chain of events set off by a very good little boy’s letter to Santa, wishing for a glamorous Sparkle Ann doll for Christmas. Claus instead gives him a truck, mostly because he doesn’t want to look supportive of such a nontraditional, non-gender-normative present in front of the elves. The story takes off like magical reindeer from there, telling a tale that spans years and continents and includes a variety of engaging characters. Over the course of about an hour, Jeffrey Solomon portrays no fewer than 12 discrete characters – and it’s possible I’ve left someone out. With the addition of a hat, a feather boa or a pair of glasses and Solomon’s masterful changes in affect, each of these characters was an easily identifiable, separate person. His consistent modulation of voice, accent, posture, and gesture made each character recognizable each time they appeared.

Solomon was so successful in creating these distinguishable characters that I’m experiencing a funny memory trick when I remember the show. When I think of the flamboyant, fabulous character José, I don’t get a mental picture of Solomon in a pink boa; instead I visualize someone much more akin to Hank Azaria’s “Agador Spartacus” in the movie, The Birdcage. Santa’s agent, Sidney Green, appears not like Solomon in a hat, but as a dead ringer for a dear friend of mine’s dad, Jerry. (You’ll just have to take my word on that one.) Even the younger and older versions of the doll-desiring Gary appear as a kid and a young adult in my mind. I don’t have an unusually active imagination; Solomon is just that good.

The invisible hands at work in The Santa Closet are Director John Brancato; Sound Designers Jill Du Boff and Jason Webb; Original Music creators Andrew Ingkavet and Jason Webb; and Projection Designer David Derr. As is often the case with the people in these important roles, the result of them doing an excellent job is that they are barely noticeable, if noticed at all. The set, the music, the props, the lights, the projections, they all just seem to be as they should, supporting, not distracting, from the action onstage.

I won’t spoil things by describing more about the story, but I will note that it was more than just a hilarious flight of fancy. Beneath the many laughs in The Santa Closet, there are important themes of tolerance, acceptance, and the costs and rewards living authentically, as well as the season-appropriate reminder of the nobility of giving directly from the heart without expecting anything in return.

Fair warning: There is some language that might land you on Kringle’s naughty list, and some references that could lead to an uncomfortable “what does X mean” conversation on the drive home if you bring children. Get a babysitter; seeing this show is worth it.

______

The Seven Poor Travellers

Charlie Bethel. Photo courtesy of his facebook.
Charlie Bethel. Photo courtesy of his facebook.

“You have to love the story.” This is what Charlie Bethel told me when I asked how he achieves such masterful storytelling. I thought to myself, “wow, he must adore The Seven Poor Travellers. Bethel also told me that Charles Dickens wrote a story every Christmas, something I failed to learn previously, despite a fondness for the author. I suppose I’ve always just focused on A Christmas Carol. When you’ve created Scrooge and Tiny Tim, any obligation you might’ve had to add to the canon of Christmastime literature has surely been met. But Dickens loved Christmas and he loved writing – a pair of facts for which we should all be grateful.

Charlie Bethel’s adaption and performance of The Seven Poor Travellers, which is finishing up a run at Baltimore Theatre Project this weekend, is another reason to be thankful this holiday season. It’s an engaging tale, presented with charm and wit. At the start of his performance, Bethel appeared onstage, smiling, as he placed an assortment of drinks and some papers on a small table. Next to the table, a single straightback chair. Other than those, there was no set.  Bethel walked to center stage, announced the name of the piece, and promptly disappeared.

In his place – through subtle changes in posture, expression and voice – was the narrator, a character many believe to be Charles Dickens himself. With house lights up and no costumes, no sets, no props, and only the sparest of sound effects, Bethel managed to transport me to the cobblestone streets of Rochester (England, not New York) on Christmas Eve, 1854. The narrator began by describing an inscription he saw over a door: “Richard Watts, Esq., by his Will, dated 22 Aug. 1579, founded this charity for six poor travellers who, not being rogues or lawyers, may receive gratis for one night: lodging, entertainment, and four pence each.” He went on to expound on his experience in the almshouse and a story he shared with those staying therein.

Dickens’ words flowed naturally from Bethel’s mouth, giving the impression that this was not the retelling of a 161-year-old tale, but instead, the excited first recounting of something that happened to him personally. As he told the tragically beautiful story-within-the-story, he – as the narrator – acted out certain parts and used subtle devices to differentiate the characters. It was a fantastic story of war and loss, forgiveness and redemption. And when it was done, the narrator remained, wrapping up the story about the charity house.

Bethel’s delivery of these stories – the frame story and the story within – were entirely engaging and gave me that “edge-of-my-seat” feeling that only gifted storytellers elicit. From beginning to end, I was riveted. To use a phrase of Dickens’ myself, every aspect of Charlie Bethel’s performance of of The Seven Poor Travellers “was eloquent of Christmas.” Go see it while it’s still in town.

Charlie Bethel in 'The Seven Poor Travelers.'
Charlie Bethel in ‘The Seven Poor Travelers.’

There are only 5 performances left of The Holiday Special, featuring Jeffrey Solomon’s The Santa Closet and Charlie Bethel’s adaption of The Seven Poor Travellers. Get your tickets now so you don’t miss out on this pair of excellent one-man shows by two of the best storytellers I’ve seen.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

The Holiday Special: The Santa Closet and The Seven Poor Travellers plays through Sunday, December 20, 2015 at Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-8558, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif