Secular Christmas stories usually turn
on fantasy with a subtext. Could be that anthropomorphic snowman, the
flying arctic creature with the glowing proboscis or the Ghost of
Christmas Past. In most cases, the leap into the unreal is the pretext
for the promotion of generosity and benevolence, all praiseworthy
virtues admired by most religions.
Brian Dykstra, the internationally known
playwright and wordsmith now based in Ithaca, has different themes on
his mind. He’s more concerned about the bullying forces that ruin the
fun and those who find themselves disappointed at year’s end. Like
other fantasists, however, Dykstra wants to draw you into his narrative
thread and make you smile.
Dykstra is neither Marley nor Scrooge. As the publicity from Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company keeps emphasizing that his Ho! (the first of two one-act plays) would
not be suitable for a Hallmark Christmas special, theatergoers might
well expect a rant against the excesses of the season, like the bogus
bonhomie. That’s the stuff of letters to the daily newspaper and
something to bring a shrug rather than laughter. Instead, Dykstra
reconceptualizes Santa as an omnivorous corporate predator who owns the
holiday. This is not St. Nick, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas but
rather a pompous Grinch with a red hat and a pot belly who seeks to
maximize the franchise so that girls named Holly and boys named Noel
would have to pay a licensing fee to hold their names.
Once the outrageousness of the notion is
on the floor, Dykstra raises the stakes by bringing Santa and his legal
team into conflict with another big man of a different color, the Jolly
Green Giant. Not only is this a rival marketer with a lot of muscle,
but his tagline sounds like copyright infringement three times over,
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” This rises to a corporate battle of the titans
until the shocking (well, startling) denouement, which draws on the
conclusion of a well-known sci-fi movie.
Suspense, however, is not the way Dykstra entices an audience. Dykstra the playwright (A Play on Words, Clean Alternatives)
has been compared by this newspaper to David Mamet crossed with George
Carlin. Speaking in his own voice, not waiting for another character to
respond, his velocity increases by perhaps 50 percent. As the program
bio always points out, he once competed on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam,
and it shows more here. If we go back far enough Dykstra also sounds a
bit like the prose riffs of Dylan Thomas, with ornate sentence
structure bracing internal rhymes that no one can conjure in
conversation. But like Carlin, a white kid who grew up in a black
neighborhood, Dykstra has the drive and the fever of black speech, not
just hip-hop, while always speaking with a white accent.
Sometimes Dykstra’s wordplay comes in
rhyming couplets, like a mock version of “The Visit of Saint Nicholas.”
(“He runs the kingdom with an iron fist/ See what happens when you get
him pissed.”) More often the rhymes are internal, or buried in the
middle of a second line. In the first few minutes we almost don’t
notice the rhymes, but later they become obsessive as Dykstra breaks
though the fourth wall to tease the audience. In one labored sentence,
when he feigns a falter, he pretends to struggle to find the word
“gnome,” sounded with heavy emphasis. Then in the next line he slows
down to let the audience guess what the rhyme will be. And, no, it’s
Although Ho!—part of the Kitchen
Sink season of new one-acts and performance pieces—is a monologue,
Dykstra and his usual director Margarett Perry stage the hour-long
celebration so that it feels like a stage play, with inventive
blocking, props and more than two dozen lighting cues. Dykstra also
speaks from time to time in different voices, not only the Ho-ing giants but also a lawyer named Samantha Reilly who turns out to be Jewish, the segue to a fistful of new holiday gags.
The Kitchen Theatre program has the title Ho! splashed on the cover in oversize letters, but by turning to the second page, one finds a second title in much smaller font, A Christmas Tree Story, which
takes an entirely different angle on the holiday. His tone may be more
somber, as Dykstra stands at a microphone as if doing stand-up, but
with pathos instead of gags. Still present is the bracing wit. His pace
slows measurably, with little of the verbal jiu-jitsu of Ho! The
narrative could still well be rooted in black culture as it sounds a
bit like “John Henry the Steel-Driving Man” crossed with Hans Christian
Andersen’s “Little Match Girl.”
His narrative draws together two
characters of opposite gender, Sammy the Tree and Sally the Witch.
Sammy grows in the forests of northern Vermont, and we see him growing
muscle and mass, like an Olympian contender in training, while Sally
lurks in the city. When Sammy is harvested and shipped to Manhattan, he
hopes to be taken to the fashionable Upper East Side where residents go
to openings at the Metropolitan Opera. No such luck. Worse, although
he’s one of the finest specimens available, at the end of the retail
season he finds himself passed and disposable. Only Sally can still
find value in him.
An earlier Dykstra venture at the Kitchen, The Jesus Factor (2007
and 2008) went on for a three-month run at New York City’s Barrow
Street Theatre. His verbal pyrotechnics are unique in our part of the
world, and Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre, upstate’s only off-Broadway
theater, gives him a unique forum.
This production runs through Sunday, Dec. 20. See Times Table for information.