The traditional Santa lived at the North Pole. He had some elfin helpers and a sleigh and a team of flying reindeer. But frankly, the tale was pretty vague.
Well, Yuletide is not vague. It's the city where the Claus dynasty holds sway. In fact, this kingdom is vividly imagined, often amusing, but also uncommonly complex.
Just as one might draw a map of Neverland or Oz, one might sketch the geography of Yuletide. In fact, it sits in all its intricate glory in the playbill.
In Yuletide, the names of the flying reindeer denote not beasts, but burghs. Four of the burghs are dominated by guilds and four by unions. Furthermore, each of the guilds and unions are in charge of one aspect of production. For instance, Comet is in charge of energy supply; Donner, ship building; Blitzen, baking; Dancer, dreams, and so on.
At the center of town is the red-and-green square dominated by Claus Manor, where his majesty Santa lives. His subjects are elves.
All right, that's the basic lay of the land -- leaving aside things like the harbor of the three ships, Faxfare forest (where a great battle was fought against the enemies of Christmas) and Folly by Golly (two outlying hamlets that lend themselves to a truly hilarious gnarl of verbal nonsense, that involves Polly and her dolly, Molly, not to mention her hummingbird, Jolly (among other "ollies").
One of the annual events in Yuletide is a "Christmas Presentation Fair." The student elves try to outdo each other in their presentations. Of course, coming up with a presentation that's really "tinsel" ("cool" in elf slang) is no easy matter. Much of the fun in the first act comes from these efforts -- along with digressions concerning porcupine bureaucrats, the distribution by whale of sugar plums and two contradictory explanations about the origin of a soft drink called Whiska-Snaps.
If you're envisioning a cast of thousands and scads of special effects, be advised that this entire kaleidoscopic world is created solely by an agile, talented cast of seven. Director Buzz Podewell has opted for a fluid use of suggestion, rather than risk slowing things down with intricate devices. In a sense, he's based his approach on the way children themselves play. It's all make-believe.
Jackson Townsend, Aime Hayes, Gary Rucker, Wendi Berman, Carol Sutton, Rebecca Frank and Ben Clement transform instantly from character to character, from human to beast and from adult to child. Most of the time this works well. Here and there, I was somewhat confused -- like when a group of grownups suddenly sat down and started to cry like spoiled children begging for a bedtime story.
Maybe if I was a child (or more of child) I would have slipped effortlessly into the groove. This brings up another dilemma that may have colored my reactions. There were no children in the audience when I saw the show. Yet, both the script and the broad acting style are clearly meant to appeal to kids. It may be that scheduling most of the performances at night is not the best way for Southern Rep to reach Yuletide's intended audience.
In the second act of the play, a voluble and "perpetually punctual" Pigeon (Berman in black tails) visits each of the unions and guilds -- receiving, along the way, a string of cryptic messages that hint at some mystery. The mystery turns out to be vividly imagined as well as devilishly complicated. Maybe that's supposed to be the fun of it -- like the jumble of syllables in a tongue-twister.
Ultimately, Yuletide is like a piece of music with so many grace notes, you sometimes lose track of the melody. One feels that the overall scheme -- the whole new mythology of Christmas -- is meant to carry things along. For me, it was the grace notes themselves that I enjoyed -- those moments when it seemed the playwright was riffing on some trifle that caught his fancy, like the Folly-by-Golly lunacy.
Yuletide is definitely not the same old tried-and-true holiday tale. I think it would improve by a clearer, tighter focus. But, Lord knows, it's always nice to get something new for Christmas.