Friday, November 26, 2010

Holiday Theater Review: "Miracle on State Street"

SAN NARCISO, Calif. -- Today begins The Tank Players’ original production of “Miracle on State Street.” The musical play, which runs through December 19 at the Buffum Plaza Arts Center in Santa Calcetines, re-imagines the holiday classic “Miracle on 34th Street,” but told from the perspective of a group of damaged people in contemporary Chicago. The McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade, formerly The State Street Holiday Parade, provides the backdrop of the story, just as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade propels the events that unfold in “Miracle on 34th Street,” the inferior and now cliché basis of The Tank Players’ new show. Performance times and ticket prices can be found at the venue box office, the Tank Players’ Web site, and on our Community Events Calendar.

“Miracle on State Street” parallels the core character and plot elements of its predecessor, but there the similarities end. The underlying themes of State Street are much grittier and morally ambiguous. In the 1947 film, the acceptance of blind faith might be the epiphany that startles Maureen O’Hara’s pragmatic and independent character, Doris Walker, back into line with the subservient and unquestioning role of the ideal post-war woman, but State Street’s Doris Walkerinski learns that existential dread and apathy are the tools of survival in a corrupt and impoverished 21st century city that finds itself inching closer to ruin with each passing hour.

The action in State Street is often narrated in the style of a Greek chorus by a group of postal workers who carry muted bugles.



The Story
Doris Walkerinski rings the register at the drive-through counter of a McDonald’s on State Street. She learns, much to the disappointment of her illegitimate daughter, Susan, that McDonald’s Corporate has decided all restaurants across the state will remain open on Thanksgiving. Doris will need to pull a double-shift and cancel her plans to watch the parade from the restaurant parking lot with her little girl.

Fred Gailstert, Walkerinski’s next door neighbor in the horrific Cabrini-Green tenement on Chicago’s North Side, is a former Wall Street lobbyist who’s been unemployed since 2007. Although charming, generous and charismatic, Gailstert suffers a variety of sex and drug addictions, lives in a constant state of decline, and insists that Santa Claus will reappear in a Second Coming to rival that of Christ’s. When Kris Kringle comes, according to Gailstert, it will be to right all the wrongs visited upon the economy by greedy men. In Gailstert’s prophetic soliloquies, a Germanic demon called Knecht Ruprecht accompanies St. Nick on his holiday errands, but with the sole purpose of punishing, as the character explains in song,

The bad, the sad, the sinful and corrupt;
The greedy, seedy devils who left us all bankrupt.

A true orator, Gailstert paints a vivid nightmare landscape of retribution, gruesome vengeance, dismemberment and vivisection at the hands of Ruprecht, who deals in tools more diabolical and lethal than bags of coal and sticks. To make ends meet, Fred Gailstert babysits Susan for Doris.

Doris doesn’t believe in God or fate or a Santa Claus straight out of a Jacobean Revenge Play. Although the production dangles the carrot of a romantic link between Fred and Doris before us, The Tank Players deftly pull it away again just before we can take a bite. The relationship becomes permanently strained when Doris receives a call from Susan’s principal, who explains that the school will be suspending Susan for disturbing the other students with frightening and inappropriate tales of Santa. Doris gets cross with Gailstert and tells him she never wants to see him again.

Meanwhile, the central tension of the wider play begins to build. By way of the postal narrators, we learn of the kidnapping of film critic Gene Shalit, which turns out to be crucial to the development of the plot. McDonald’s corporate marketing team has hired Shalit to serve as the Grand Marshal of the parade. But Shalit has been abducted by Islamic terrorists.

The catalyst seems to be a decades-old humor column which Shalit wrote for the school newspaper while attending Morristown High. Shalit's scathing indictment of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, written ages ago, has now found its way to Palestine. The Tank Players recall the article for us in a surreal scene that features Arafat and former Egyptian President Anwar Sedat in a 1970’s glam band called "PLO Speedwagon." In the bit, lead guitarist Sedat pretends to fellate singer Arafat on stage. Later, in the dressing room, the two sodomize one another before a horrified group of NYU groupies.

"Just shy of drawing dirty cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, this was about the stupidest thing to do," a senior McDonald’s official tells the audience before breaking into the song “Headed For a Fall” from REO Speedwagon’s forgotten “This Time We Mean It” album. Interestingly, the longtime director of The Tank Players, Randolph Driblette, has opted to use music from Illinois artists exclusively.

Back in the play, we learn that Shalit is being held captive in Gaza Strip, a titty bar located near Flushing. The subsequent stand-off scene, negotiations, and firefight between the National Guard and the terrorists, in which Shalit martyrs himself, is both protracted and perplexing.

Suffice it to say, McDonald’s needs to find a new Grand Marshal for the parade. Walkerinski comes up the brilliant idea to offer former Governor Rod Blagojevich. We later discover that Blagojevich is really Susan’s father, having engaged in an affair with Walkerinski when she was still prostituting herself for food stamps and weed.

McDonald’s is impressed with Walkerinski’s connections and quick thinking. She is promised the consideration of a possible promotion within some conceptual aspect of the organization in the distant future, to be determined at a later date. But Blagojevich’s insane antics and obscene outbursts during the parade mark the end of Doris Walkerinski’s career in the food services industry. The play alludes to a monetary tie between Blagojevich and the terrorists who captured Gene Shalit, but this theme is never fully explored.

In the tragic conclusion of the play, we find Doris, now publicly humiliated and unemployed, running through the graffiti-marred and piss-stained halls of Cabrini-Green, searching desperately for Susan and Gailstert. She finally uncovers her daughter’s raped and mutilated body under the naked corpse of Gailstert, which hangs by a crudely shaped noose above. On the wall behind Gailstert’s swaying form is the mural of an enormous black face, the mouth filled with swarming bees. A letter addressed to “Whom It Shouldn’t Concern,” and stamped with the image of a trumpet, floats ghostly in the background of the painting. When questioned about the play’s homage to a cheesy horror flick and the strange presence of the letter, director Randolph Driblette cracked his legendarily reticent and knowing smile.

Recommendation
All things considered, “Miracle on State Street” makes a very poignant statement about the holidays and modern society, but it’s about as much fun to watch as a plastic surgery or an alleyway abortion. However, with only one theater in San Narciso County, what choice do patrons of the arts have? Fresno’s too far and LA’s too expensive. For those reasons, I recommend seeing “Miracle on State Street.”
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