SANTA ANA — The Alternative Repertory Theatre is offering a new Christmas production this year in place of "A Christmas Memory," its six-year staple by Truman Capote. "Kringle's Window," by Mark Medoff, is a feel-good fantasy about the existence of Santa Claus that probably will please the little ones. But if you're a grown-up looking for a touching tale to spark the spirit of the season, this will leave you cold as an unlit Yule log.
Originally commissioned by a children's theater troupe, "Kringle's Window" is a simplistic and sentimental tale that would be right at home touring elementary schools but is pretty slim fixin's for a holiday feast if your appetite extends beyond candy canes.
A girl called Becka, played with surprising depth by Katie Hutchinson, caves into peer pressure and deflates her little sister's belief in the jolly old elf in the big red suit. The girls' parents have separated recently, and no one is getting along very well, which explains why Becka is being so mean-spirited. Although both mom (Teresa Meza) and dad (Jonathan Motil) are professional counselors, their attempts to deal with the situation quickly degenerate into bickering and accusations.
While the grown-ups carry on, Becka escapes into her beloved computer. Enter a mysterious woman named Mrs. Rosen, who speaks as many languages as there are snowflake patterns and who is able to conjure winds and groceries and giant Christmas trees by waving her colorful scarf. It is obvious from the outset that Mrs. Rosen is going to restore not only the magic of Santa Claus, but harmony in Becka's family as well.
The play's title refers to Santa's electronic address, for which Becka searches on her computer after making a wager with Mrs. Rosen as to whether Santa is real. Ultimately, this part of the plot has very little to do with the story, except to soften Becka up for the fantastic finale.
The burden of the show rests upon Mrs. Rosen, who is all-wise and all-wisecracking. Unfortunately, actress Arilyn Carpenter is unable to generate the nutty charisma needed to propel "Kringle's Window" into a comic cyberspace where it might make more sense. Much of her performance has the effect of an uninspired stand-up routine.
But despite that, and even though the script is heavy on exposition and even heavier on sentimental goo as everything comes magically together at the end, children in the audience seemed to like it just fine--even if some of the adults looked slightly anesthetized.
Joel T. Cotter's direction wisely stresses the fantasy as Medoff's script skates through the terrain of broken homes, lean cupboards and homeless strangers with the blithe unconcern of a nutcracker fairy. Once again, Gary Christensen's sound design adds welcome texture, and the uncredited set design--everything on stage is painted blue and speckled white, as if lightly dusted with snow--reminds us that we are in the Christmas of store window displays, where everything is exactly as two-dimensional as it appears to be.
* "Kringle's Window," Alternative Repertory Theatre, 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Dec. 23. $16. (714) 836-7929. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Katie Hutchinson: Becka
Mary Shelton: Boomer
Teresa Meza: Irene
Arilyn Carpenter: Mrs. Rosen
Pamela Small: Ronnie
Dina Bartello: Alice Anne
Jonathan Motil: Dean, Santas
An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of a play by Mark Medoff, directed by Joel T. Cotter. Lights: Looi Goring. Sound: Gary Christensen. Stage manager: Rachel Homel.