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REVIEW: Theatre Cedar Rapids brings hypnotic horror story to Brucemore

Far from being a Christmas tale, #x201c;St. Nicholas#x201d; finds an unnamed, boozy theater critic (Matthew James) falli
Far from being a Christmas tale, “St. Nicholas” finds an unnamed, boozy theater critic (Matthew James) falling under the spell of Helen (Anna Slife), a much-younger actress who beguiles him as he watches her dance the role of Salome. The equally beguiling play, staged by Theatre Cedar Rapids in Brucemore’s outdoor courtyard, continues through Oct. 17. (Farrar Design)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Don’t let the title fool you. “St. Nicholas” is no Christmas pageant. But it is a great and wondrous gift to audiences, actors and everyone working behind the scenes in this Theatre Cedar Rapids/Brucemore collaboration.

Presented under the stars in Brucemore’s Courtyard, accessed from Linden Drive SE, the show continues Wednesday through Saturday. I caught Friday’s sold-out performance, on a perfect, summery fall evening.

With physically distanced seating for 81, including 18 tables and nine single chairs, don’t wait to grab your ticket, or you’ll miss out on a most intriguing tale of lust run amok. And vampires.

’Tis the Halloween season, after all.

Last year, Matthew James, one of the Corridor’s finest actors, created the most terrifying evening of theater I’ve ever witnessed, portraying Dracula in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ subterranean Grandon Studio. This year, he’s sinking his teeth into the other side of darkness.

His unnamed character is a middle-aged, overweight, booze-soaked theater critic who delights in the power he wields over actors who quake when they hear he’s in their midst. That’s pretty much the only delight he finds in his life outside Dublin’s pubs, and a glimmer of affection for his daughter, who may follow in his footsteps as a writer. His son just siphons his money and his wife siphons his soul, all of which leaves him feeling dead inside.

Then one night, he’s bewitched by a young actress named Helen, who is dancing the role of Salome in a show he pans. He feels so bad about his negative review that he follows her to London to apologize, and see her again. She has awakened something inside him.

Here is where director Angie Toomsen’s brilliance comes in to play. The award-winning script, from Irish playwright Conor McPherson, is intended as a solo performance. But Toomsen brings onboard Anna Slife as Helen — and several other characters — adding an elegant, hypnotic visual dimension in the ethereal, gauzy shadows of S. Benjamin Farrar’s elegant, hypnotic scenery and lighting effects.

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James has proved his mettle time after time, for me, beginning with “Angels in America” in 2007, and every footstep on every stage thereafter, from tour-de-force turns in “Hamlet,” “Doubt” and “The Summerland Project” to “St. Nicholas.”

He slips in and out of this show’s various characters and accents with ease, so audiences are never left wondering who is speaking. As the critic, he moves with an arthritic posture in his knees and hips, with potbellied back pain, but when he voices the vampire he meets in London, he becomes instantly urbane.

Toomsen described the show as “enigmatic,” and indeed, it is, whether by her choices or as dictated by the script. At first, James’ high-buttoned three-piece suit led me to believe the action was set at the turn of the 20th century. But then his character mentioned being on radio and television, and ringing in his review from his car, placing him squarely in the 21st century. A little twist near the end of the show blurs those lines in a most delicious, barely perceptible way.

When I asked Toomsen about the significance of the play’s title, she offered up one theory: “The only holiday reference to Christmas is his line, ‘You can’t light a stranger’s face with the mention of Santa. You can only do that to certain people, and for a certain amount of time.’ He’s talking about our need for vampires to be magical. Something in us craves the supernatural,” Toomsen said.

“But, more symbolically, St. Nicholas calls up the critic’s genuine feeling for his daughter, which stops him in his tracks and diverts his cynicism several times.”

James is a mesmerizing storyteller. He’s physically and emotionally raw as his character stumbles through life in this horror story where the evil is ordinary — making it much more frightening.

Thank you, TCR and Brucemore, for slaking our thirst for live theater, showing us that it is indeed, undead.

If you go

What: Theatre Cedar Rapids and Brucemore present “St. Nicholas,” by Conor McPherson

Where: Brucemore’s outdoor courtyard, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (10/14-17)

Run time: 85 minutes with one intermission

Seating: 18 tables of four; nine single seats

Content advisory: Adult language and themes

Tickets: $100 per table, $25 individual seats; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org/event/st-nicholas/2020-10-09/

Parking: On-site; enter through Linden Drive gates, exit via Dows Lane; no parking along Dows Lane

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Extra: Chairs provided; face masks and social distancing mandatory; hand sanitizer on-site; bring own beverages and snacks

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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