Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
I saw the first act of this one-man play by Conor McPherson ten years ago at Barrington Stage. Unfortunately I passed out at intermission and had to be taken home. So when I heard that Dorset was opening with St. Nicholas this season I jumped at the chance to finally learn how it came out in the end. A decade is a long time to wait for such enlightenment – perhaps too long – because I found the conclusion to be a bit of a let down.
St. Nicholas is not about Santa Claus or his real-life inspiration Nicholas of Myra. In fact it is not really about anything except storytelling, and storytelling in the Irish sense. This is a very Irish play. I think that is the most important thing that I can tell you about it – that the playwright is Irish and the unnamed Dublin theatre critic who tells you this story is Irish.
I first went to see St. Nicholas back in 1999 because how could any theatre critic resist a play about a fellow critic who becomes so disillusioned with his life and career that he becomes a recruiter for a group of vampires? I know that there are many people, and Conor McPherson may be one of them, who believe that theatre critics are even lower forms of life than the undead and therefore this unlikely career move is seen as a step up, but I don’t. Even if I suddenly decided that theatre criticism was no longer an honorable or an enjoyable pursuit, I can’t imagine that recruiting victims for blood-sucking fiends would be my next choice.
Of course McPherson is drawing a parallel between different kinds of nocturnal creatures who have great power over mere mortals and deprive them of the very stuff of life. Yeah, yeah, I get it. I am here to assure you that critics don’t turn to dust in the sunlight and you cannot keep us out of the theatre with garlands of garlic – or a bag of rice.
At the end of the first act our protagonist has made his drunken way (and this man drinks A LOT!!) from Dublin to London and met up with the vampires. At the end of the second act he is on his way back home, and seemingly back to his job as a journalist, if not as a critic. Of the intervening events, they may or may not be true. Reason would tell us they probably aren’t, but McPherson wants us to see that relying on reason may not always be our best resource.
“Because we are reflective beings and we like neatness, we want to know what everything means...That’s what makes us responsible. And I think that’s what St. Nicholas might be about. The responsibility reason gives us.” – Conor McPherson, January 1997 If you are the kind of person who must know what everything means, “St. Nicholas” will drive you crazy – not quite as crazy as Pinter or Beckett, but crazy enough to feel convinced you have been had. Beckett was Irish too.
Carl Forsman, the artistic director of the Dorset Theatre Festival, has directed Jack Gilpin to render this tale with great intensity and little humor. The audience is seated on the stage, facing out in to the house, on three sides of the playing area downstage center. Gilpin enters and exits through the house, which forms an appropriately theatrical backdrop to this yarn of dramatic proportions.
Lighting designer Joshua Bradford does use lights on stage, which means on the audience as well as the actor, which are effective, but his constant varying of the lighting effects out in the house seemed random and drove me crazy. Why were the wall sconces lit now? Why was Row K gracefully illuminated then? What were those funny little footlights along the back wall? The only lighting effect in the house that I enjoyed were the little LED lights that appeared when Gilpin told about the vampires late night parties in the garden.
McPherson does have a way with words. The language in this play is sometimes rough, but mostly lyrical. McPherson, Forsman and Gilpin conspire to make vampirism sound very appealing at times, using the euphony and rhythm of the human voice to lull and woo.
(On the other hand they do little to make being a theatre critic sound like fun, which it actually is. I will have to write a play about that some time.)
Many years ago the mumps robbed me of ten percent of my hearing in the lower registers so I may be mistaken in this next statement, or I may have missed what others heard clearly, but to my ears there were times when sound designer Will Pickens used very low tones, so low as to be more of a vibration than a sound. The effect was quite chilling, and I thought that must be what it feels like to listen to elephants talking. I am not sure Pickens and Forsman intended me to be thinking about elephants, but they use extremely low frequencies to communicate.
I am glad a finally saw all of St. Nicholas, but I wonder how it will appeal to people who are neither theatre critics nor vampire enthusiasts (or vampires, for that matter). I know vampires are “hot” right now, especially with young people, and Forsman may be hoping to lure some of that elusive younger demographic to the DTF, but I wonder about this piece as a Main Stage play. When BSC presented the play they did so out of doors, in a mosquito infested swamp, unfortunately, but not on their Main Stage. It was offered as a side-dish, not a main course.
Forsman only gets four chances per season to attract, and retain, ticket-buyers. Opening with a play, however well written and performed, that is more off-putting than welcoming seems a risky plan.
The Dorset Theatre Festival production of St. Nicholas runs through June 27 at the Dorset Playhouse on Cheney Road in Dorset, VT. The show runs an hour and twenty-five minutes with one intermission and is not suitable for children. For tickets and information please call the box office at 802-867-2223.
Gail M. Burns, 2007