Studio Players’ latest production, Yes, Svetlana, There Is a Grandfather Frost, requires an extreme point of view to succeed: brazen campiness or serious moral searching made palatable by comedy.
Director Galen Velonis takes the middle ground, and the result is largely confounding, with redemptive entertaining moments mixed with jarring political horrors that no letter to an 8-year-old can fix.
The show is a 1950s Soviet twist on the beloved 1950s movie Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus, and its premise is promising. Set in a newspaper office that publishes state-approved stories, the play centers on the fallout from one reporter’s decision to try to stop a state-planned massacre of people attending an illegal Christmas tree lighting. Christmas, you see, has been quashed and silenced, with Christmas Eve visits from St. Nicholas replaced by New Year’s Day visits by Grandfather Frost. Youngsters know only about Grandfather Frost, but adults remember Christmas before the Communist Party became a kind of intolerable religion.
The play opens with naïve 17-year-old secretary Devuchka (Bailey Preston) receiving a letter from a young girl whose friends told her that there was no Grandfather Frost. We quickly learn that the newspaper only rewrites Communist Party press releases; one, for a story about a tragedy at an unauthorized Christmas tree lighting, is dated for the next day, meaning the party itself plans to attack its own citizens. When old-school reporter Tserkov (Lew Bowling) starts asking questions, the state sends officials to shut it all down with scare tactics.
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The sobering themes of censorship, suppression, mass coercion and public lies, including state-sanctioned murder, hang thickly in the air, making the laughter in the play’s many comical moments come just a moment or two too late.
Sebastian Monroe plays the overly flirtatious comic relief. His levity is a comforting highlight, as is Preston as Devuchka. Even when falsely arrested, he stays true to the role’s campiness, looking appropriately absurd as he is carted off in a blue Grandfather Frost costume. Devuchka’s naïvete is at once admirable and frightening, proof that the party has succeeded in censoring history.
Peggy Watts plays the hard-nosed Madam Editrix, who toes the line but whose family has a history of dissent. One-note performances abound in this show, which makes me think it should have been more firmly rooted in camp. But then, the material is awfully dark for camp. Yes, comedy might be tragedy plus time, but there is something still fresh about the tragedy in the show, even though it takes places more than 50 years ago. I understand why Velonis would try to dig into that discomfort in the show, but I don’t think the ensemble is up to the task. It would take a skilled actor indeed to pivot between the show’s dark and light moments with nuance, and there were many moments in the show when actors stumbled over or were visibly reaching for lines.
When Tserkov is moved by Devuchka’s impassioned plea in defense of Grandfather Frost and writes a heartfelt letter proclaiming that he is real, I am not sure his about-face is believable, and if so, it’s not as warming as it’s supposed to be. Yes, it’s moving that he wants to make a little girl happy, and it’s important character development that he can see that Grandfather Frost symbolizes to the young generation exactly what St. Nicholas did for his. But something about it feels too sad to be heartwarming, as if I'm watching a man being gracefully defeated while his past is erased.
‘Yes, Svetlana, There Is a Grandfather Frost’
What: Studio Players’ production of Jeff Goode’s play.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 20, 21, 27, 28. 2:30 p.m. Nov. 22 and 29.
Where: Carriage House Theatre, 154 W. Bell Court
Tickets: $21, $11 students
Call: (859) 257-4929