Theater Spotlight: S. Gunter Klaus & the Story Before

Eric Melzer

While our contemporary Santa Claus has lapsed into a miasma of fat-man materialist overindulgence and the indignities of department store knock-offs (sit on that man's knee? Really?), the old boy can at least cast back wistfully at his weird and varied roots in European folklore. John Heimbuch's new script places the action in an obscure northern village way back when, where our titular hero, Gunter (Brant Miller), is an outcaste purveyor of coal and a selfless dispenser of humble children's toys (no place to plug in that PlayStation, anyway). Of course all is not as it seems, and when some of the village kids attempt to follow him back to his isolated shack, they are accosted by trolls and are soon leaning heavily on Gunter's shady contacts in the folkloric underworld to get back home. Jon Ferguson directs, and in the early going his touch is familiar and evident: Our villagers are sheepishly charming, apt to speak to the audience, and trying to find that quasi-mystical groove that surfaces in Ferguson's best work (when one is disarmed, shaken, then patted on the back for reassurance before the next salvo begins). The problem with this one-act alternative holiday thingamabob sets in at about the halfway mark, when the plot thickens. We delve into a world of elves, dwarves, and a crazed mission to save the world from a season of eternal cold and darkness (insert Minnesota joke here). But Heimbuch's script tosses in about a shovelful more detail than we really need to drive the story forward, and the magical quest to restore light and rebirth to the land becomes perilously bogged down with drifting purpose. None of which is enough to drive one away (Miller is sunny and expansive, with a welcome hint of subversion), but the assorted compromises drain the play of purpose. That said, a knockout work might be lurking within reach. $22. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thurdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.340.1725. Through December 23

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