Santa Claus: Christmas story gets a hilariously twisted retelling

by Sharon Stephenson / 30 November, 2017

Leo Gene Peters, director of Wellington theatre company A Slightly Isolated Dog

Naughty or nice?

Santa might be a “fat, white guy with a beard and a red suit”, but that’s where any parallels with the traditional Christmas story end in Santa Claus at the Basement Theatre in Auckland this festive season.

It’s the ninth year the inner-city venue has staged a Christmas production, and this year Wellington-based theatre company A Slightly Isolated Dog has been chosen to come north and serve up the seasonal message.

“Ours isn’t a traditional telling of the Christmas story,” says company director Leo Gene Peters, with tongue firmly lodged in cheek. “What we’re doing is presenting fast-paced, funny and interactive storytelling, which is basically a chaotic romp through our version of a Christmas tale.”

Peters, who started the 15-strong company in 2005, says the adult-only production is loosely based around Santa’s visit to Auckland. “Santa comes bearing gifts but then discovers no one has been nice,” he says. “Instead, naughtiness has taken over Auckland, with residents doing everything from buying caged eggs to parking in a disabled spot. Not surprisingly, Santa gets pretty angry and it could all end in a killing spree.”

The production, which runs from November 30 to December 20, is largely improvised, with a changing line-up of well-known guest stars joining the cast on stage, including comedian Urzila Carlson, actress Antonia Prebble, television presenter Miriama Kamo and newly minted Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick. 

“We have a basic structure that incorporates the traditions of clowning, physical comedy, cabaret and street theatre and is highly interactive,” says Peters. “This allows the four actors to bring in topical references and talk to the audience about their experiences of Christmas. It also means that every night’s performance is different.”

A Slightly Isolated Dog was invited to develop this year’s production after the success of its take on Jekyll & Hyde at the Basement last July (a “shockingly good comedy”) and an “irrepressibly gleeful” reworking of Molière’s Don Juan at Circa in 2015. For Peters, it’s been a chance to tap into what, for many, is a common experience of The Big Day.

“There’s this whole image of what Christmas should be – a perfect experience. And especially when you’re a child, you look forward to it for months. But then it arrives and it can often be a bit of a disappointment. What we’ve set out to do is to celebrate it all: the disappointment, the ridiculousness and the joy.”

It’s also given Peters the chance to examine his own attitude to Christmas. Born in San Antonio, the drama graduate has spent only a handful of festive seasons back in the United States since he arrived in Wellington in 2001. “I usually have an orphan’s Christmas or spend it on my own, which isn’t as bad as it sounds.”

He was encouraged to come to New Zealand by Kiwi friends he’d met in Texas, and completed his degree in directing at Toi Whakaari in 2004 (“I’ve got multiple degrees in make believe,” he jokes). Along with four friends, Peters started A Slightly Isolated Dog as “a vehicle to explore what’s important to us and why we’re alive and to do so in a funny, energetic and entertaining way”.

Santa Claus is the Basement’s only fundraising event – all the proceeds go into running the theatre, as well as supporting development programmes for local artists.

General manager Elise Sterback says the team had been keen to collaborate with A Slightly Isolated Dog for a long time. “They really are some of the top improvisers and comic talents in this country. We feel very lucky to have them on board."

This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.



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