Each December, for the past seven years, A Very Die Hard Christmas has taken over the Bryant-Lake Bowl, as a small but mighty cast of actors, improvisers, and musical theater performers put their own blood-soaked twist on a time-honored Christmas classic.
As an added bonus, each show brings in a “special guest” to play the role of Santa Claus, giving one completely unqualified chump the opportunity to steal the spotlight and ring in the holiday season with a barrage of bullets and iconic one-liners.
On the opening night of this year’s show, I am that chump.
The origin story of A Very Die Hard Christmas can be traced back to co-creators Josh Carson, Andy Rocco Kraft, Michael Mayket, and Brad Erickson, three Twin Cities theater veterans who had all independently toyed with the idea of bringing Die Hard to the stage.
“We all had these ideas to do something Die Hard-related, so we just combined forces,” recalls Erickson.
Soon, the production came together with Carson filling the role of John McClane, Kraft tackling voice duties as the play’s puppet master (think Rudolph, but with more swearing), and Erickson doing his best terrorist and Jimmy Stewart impressions on the same night. Anna Weggel was cast to play McClane’s estranged wife, Holly Gennaro, and the four have been a part of the show ever since.
Over the years, the cast has changed and been rearranged, with actor Matthew Sciple coming on board three years ago to play the iconic villain role of Hans Gruber. Leslie Vincent joined the cast last year, and Blackout Improv member Duck Washington is the latest addition for this year’s production.
The last piece of the puzzle, like any good Christmas special, was stunt-casting the special guest. Some of the celebrities who have donned the red suit and beard include TV and radio personalities, stage actors from all over town, family and friends of the cast, and even former Mayor Betsy Hodges.
While the role has only two lines, the cast shares horror stories of Santas who shit the bed.
“We’ve had actors who just can’t seem to nail, ‘Yippee kay yay, motherfucker!’” says Carson as the group gives a collective eye-roll. “I’ve heard everything from ‘Yippee kay yay, you fuckers!’ to a full-blown monologue from Santa that was not in the script.”
Others, like Hodges, have nailed the lines, but put their own spin on it to avoid controversy.
“Mayor Hodges had her staff do the swearing and hold the machine gun for her,” recalls Erickson. “She figured it probably wasn’t the right message for the mayor to be cussing and shooting people.”
Now it’s my turn to utter the iconic line.
The night of the show has arrived. It is completely sold out, as is every single evening of this year’s run. On this night, more than 20 drunk, rowdy, ugly sweater-clad rugby players have taken over half the audience, a tradition that has become known among the cast as “rugby night.”
Completely unprovoked, the guy in front of me spins around and begins shouting at me with the excitement of a child who has had too many Christmas cookies.
“This is my favorite holiday thing I do all year! I’ve been coming for three years straight!” he says.
I smile and nod.
Finally, the lights go down, the curtain opens, and insanity ensues. Right on cue, near the end of the show, I quickly retreat to the basement to get changed. Every Santa wears the same suit regardless of size, though the beard has had to be switched out due to makeup rubbing off on the inside.
I nervously throw on the giant red pants and hat, and make my way up the stairs to embrace my destiny.
Standing in the back of Bryant-Lake Bowl, I pick up the machine gun that has been conveniently left for me. As I’m clutching it while trying not to accidentally swallow pieces of the beard, I can see audience members staring at the stage with a look of awe that is usually reserved for children on Christmas morning.
Yes, it’s bloody. Yes, it’s vulgar. Yes, it’s in a bowling alley. But in that moment I realized that this really is a Christmas play. It’s not about the story, the venue, or the special guest star. No, this group has managed to create a sense of togetherness and warmth, which engulfs the entire crowd inside this tiny theater. They’ve captured Christmas.
The sound of machine gun fire shakes me from my moment of reflection. I storm the stage. I deliver my two lines, swallowing one small piece of nylon in the process. The snow begins to fall, the crowd applauds, and the curtain closes.
I retired my machine gun and beard that night, knowing that someone else will soak up that sweet, sweet validation the next night and every weekend this month. But for one evening, I am able to become a Christmas icon, and live out my wildest Bruce Willis fantasies at the same damn time.