Claire Nowak

The Day the Elves Went on Strike

A new play at Alchemist Theatre offers a Marx Brothers-like take on Santa’s workshop.

By - Dec 4th, 2014 12:26 pm
Amanda Stellberg in For Purely Elfish Reasons

Amanda Stellberg in For Purely Elfish Reasons

Santa’s elves are genuinely improbable creatures. It’s not just the pointed ears or green-laced outfits or even the magical powers. There is simply no one alive who would happily do factory work in a polar environment almost every day of the year for no pay. 

And yet that’s how they’re portrayed in popular culture. A Christmas elf with a union card and pension just doesn’t excite the imagination. The closest we may ever come to seeing this is Jason Powell’s For Purely Elfish Reasons, debuting at The Alchemist Theatre Dec. 4.

In Powell’s North Pole, Santa’s factory operates under a magic spell that keeps it running smoothly. But when an elf steals from the magical funds that keeps the place going, the spell is broken, leaving Santa no way to reimburse his workers. The elves begin to quit their posts. A desperate Santa sends three remaining elves out to urge their co-workers back into service.

Powell was originally commissioned to write a piece about Christmas elves for a local children’s theater several years ago, but the company fell into financial trouble and couldn’t put on the show. When The Alchemist Theatre approached him about a holiday show, Powell offered his elfish themed, family style show, though Alchemist’s typical fare is rarely kid-friendly (witness its Halloween show, Suicide Sleep), and though he needed to make improvements.

To create a comedy that appeals to all-ages, Powell used humor in the vein of the Marx Brothers. The script combines slapstick and prop humor, but doesn’t lack for puns and wit. He even borrowed some lines from Marx Brothers movies.

“You want something that’s straightforward enough that kids will find it funny and entertaining, but also something that parents wouldn’t be too bored at,” Powell says, “so I thought the Marx Brothers would be pretty universal.”

Due to scheduling reasons, the show had to come together rather quickly. Soon Powell found himself working as a writer and director. He also composed original songs for the production, and consequently had to write himself into the show to provide piano and guitar accompaniment. Music, he says, is one of his favorite things about the holiday season. He intended his songs to be catchy enough that people keep thinking about them after the curtain call.

“I wear a lot of different hats,” Powell says. “I’m involved in so many aspects of the show that I enjoy all of it.”

Hoping to keep the play from getting overly sentimental, Powell keeps the comedy coming and avoids preachy speeches. His goal is to have audiences leave the show smiling. He hopes, Powell says, to create “something that brings people together.”

Opens 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4 and runs through Dec. 20 at The Alchemist Theatre. Tickets are $19 and are available online.

Holidays on Ice

When Michael Stebbins moved to Milwaukee from Maryland in July, he hoped to devote his time to being a freelance actor and director. His first show with Theatre Gigante, Holidays on Ice, allows him to take on both of those roles.

The production features Stebbins reading/performing three works from humorist David Sedaris. Sedaris has written several collections of comedic essays and contributed to The New Yorker. He gained national attention in 1992 when National Public Radio broadcasted his holiday essay, “SantaLand Diaries.”

The first essay in the Gigante show, “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” is Sedaris’ take on a holiday letter found in Christmas cards that recounts important, though rarely interesting events from the previous year. “Dinah, the Christmas Whore” tells about a woman whom Sedaris and his sister met on the “wrong side of the tracks” spent Christmas with their family. Finally, “Front row center with Thaddeus Bristol” is written like a New York Times theater review, except the critic is reviewing holiday shows at local elementary schools.

“Though (the essays) are bawdy and a little rough around the edges, they have real heart to them,” Stebbins says.

Given Sedaris’ generally pessimistic view of the world, the stories in Holidays on Ice offer a less sentimental alternative to standard Christmas programs like A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker.

“I don’t know if they’re better,” Stebbins says, “but it’s a nice alternative to the more traditional things out there.”

With unabashed satire, a laidback atmosphere, and local microbrews from the neighboring Brenner Brewering Company, audiences can expect a “grungy Third-Ward-feel sort of evening,” whether or not they are familiar with Sedaris’ work, Stebbins promises.

“For those who don’t (know his work) and maybe approach the holidays with a bit of trepidation, he’s certainly sarcastic enough that it might be fun to give him a try.”

8 p.m. Dec. 5 & 6 and 2 p.m. Dec. 7 at Theatre Gigante, 706 S. 5th St. Call 414-961-6119 for tickets. Suggested donation is $15.

Giants Have Us In Their Books

Who says adults can’t learn from fairytales? The latest production from the UW-Milwaukee Theatre Department, Giants Have Us In Their Books, features six children’s plays retold for adult audiences. They are meant to remind audiences that all choices come with consequences. Children should not attend on account of mature content.

Runs Dec. 3 – 7 at UWM’ s Kenilworth Studio 508, 1925 E. Kenilworth Pl. Tickets cost $10 with discounts available for seniors, UWM faculty and students. They are available online or by calling 414-229-4308.

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