St. Nicholas by Conor McPherson. Directed by Carl Forsman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jack Gilpin in St. Nicholas; photo: Harry Lee
"Being this thing. Doing this thing."
When a theater critic comes to grips with his inner monster and discovers the world around him is inhabited with other monsters, in this case vampires, he apprentices himself to them - enters service as they say in the British Isles - and finds a new way to interface the public with his own personal demons. Thatís the story told by the narrator of this Irish fairy tale. He is a critic who claims to have no critical facility, no means of interpreting what he sees, no basis for his opinions; he only has his opinions. In reality he has means, basis and the critical where-with-all to do his job brilliantly.
Embodied on the stage of the Dorset Playhouse by actor Jack Gilpin, this nameless critic has a voice that intones his memories of the in-and-out of this world experience with all the dolor of a self-critical man out of touch with his own reality in the world. Gilpinís long square-jawed face works to his advantage in this piece. Its serious demeanor gives a peculiar status to the tale he tells. He never creates any other characters but only talks of them, in the way a critic would. Not an imitator but a reteller of the story he witnessed and participated in, he just gives us the facts without drawing us into a world of dialogues.
Playwright Conor McPherson has made some difficult choices in creating his nameless fellow. He has decided to prevent confusions by never truly creating other people on his stage. He has allowed no moralizing, no pretense, no sidetracks into other stories. We never learn much about the coven of Vampires. We know there are many of them including some devastatingly attractive females. We donít know how long they have been there, and we never learn their fate after our critic finds his way back from their very inviting lair. McPherson leaves the blanks for us to fill in with our own imaginations if we choose to do so, and principally, I suspect, we choose not to follow that line. The Vampires are not as interesting as the critic when all is said and done.
The play has laughs and the play has tears but in this production, directed by Carl Forsman, Artistic Director of the Dorset Theatre Festival, neither of those attitudes take pride of place. That is given to the straight-laced narrative of the personal story. Forsman has placed the audience on stage with the auditorium as a natural backdrop. We can see a hundred faces in our imagination, a population surrounding our critic, unseen by him and not seeing him either. That space becomes a surreal party garden, a vista into a personal hell, with the aid of wonderful lighting by Josh Bradford. We see in these few moments when the "other world" takes its place in our view why the narrator has assembled us on the stage of a theater: it is his true world, whether he believes that or not, and the only place where he can tell his story.
Other productions have emphasized the humor of the play, but Forsman and Gilpin have played it straight, pulling no punches and emphasizing no particular element. The critic's lies to a producer and his company, his lust for a young performer, his diffident treatment of his family, his willingness to assist the Vampires, his enjoyment of literature and his sudden "gift of charm" are given equal emphasis in this production.
"Every once in a while Iíd smell the rot," he tells us, eager to share this minimal emotion. The rot is his own reliance on his critical powers to understand his situations. This St. Nicholas cannot be confused with Santa Claus. The tradition of tall tales for the holidays is superceded in this summer amble through the self-realization process this critic is dragged through by his own lack of self-assurance.
In the end he emerges from his self-imposed alienation from the world he has inhabited and from the other world he has attempted to grasp, one that has fascinated him since childhood. Does he end up a better man, or even a better critic? We never know. We only know that his time among the denizens of an underworld we donít understand has given him a different sense of himself. That may be all he needs. And perhaps his personal demon has been the patron saint of the worldís favorite holiday, that vision of giving that this critic seems incapable of handling except to his monsters. Another question unanswered.
St. Nicholas plays through June 27 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont. For full schedules, prices and to purchase tickets contact the box office at 802-867-5777.