The room darkens and becomes black. An accordion begins to play haunting chords called “devil’s triads”, and a woman’s voice weaves a spine-chilling “toytn tants”—a Yiddish “death-dance” song from the 16th century, a form of entertainment popular during times of plague.
Suddenly, a minuscule ring of Christmas lights flash on, outlining the tiny cardboard stage (15 inches by 17 inches), and making visible a looming puppeteer (Jenny Romaine).
As the narrator intones the story of Santa Kloz, the curtain is parted and Romaine silently begins to move primitive “found” props across the space: A metronome with taped-on paper wings [representing time taking us back desolately to the Great Depression]; a “city” drawn crudely on newspaper; a scissors [representing a shopkeeper] which “speaks” to us by opening and shutting; an orange rolling back and forth across the stage like a baleful obsession [representing the thought of food to a starving man]; a little Santa Claus pin-cushion [Santa Kloz, of course]; a shirt cardboard skeleton [Death]; shiny, gift-wrapped boxes [well-to-do Christmas shoppers], and, finally, the two main protagonists of the production—a little boy named Alfred and his mother, each denoted by a plain cardboard box with jointed cardboard arms. [Alfred’s box is stamped with an Arm & Hammer insignia—a triple entendre on hammer and sickle, and Armand Hammer.]
The audience is intense, sucked in by the tiny scale, the makeshift props, the mockingly “unhidden” puppeteer, the inscrutable power of the whole seductive thing. The audience experiences the little production as heartbreakingly fragile, and so finds itself responding protectively—feeling deeply, sweetly, almost hypnotically moved.
The full performance of Terror As Usual’s “Santa Kloz Hot Gekhaleshf ” lasts for only nine minutes. The audience, acutely mesmerized, sits through it again and again
Jenny Romaine, 29, stilt dancer, puppeteer and performer, has worked and toured extensively with the Bread and Puppet Theater, Ninth Street Theater and the Expanding Secret Company. Employed in the sound archives at the YIVO institute for Jewish Research, Romaine is presently a Performance Studies graduate student at New York University. Here she muses on Santa Kloz a politics, and the traditions of Yiddish, agitprop and toy theater:
Well, “Santa Kloz” is a dark morality play about capitalism written sixty years ago by Jewish Communists: A starving man gets a job during the Depression as a fat, gift-dispensing Santa. I represented the characters as boxes or packages because I was playing on the Marxist idea of “commodity fetishism”—rampant around Christmas-time—in which we attribute to things the quality of people, and then we treat people as things. The mother and Alfred are simple cardboard boxes (“box populi”), but the shoppers are glitzy gift boxes.
“My box-characters have over sized attached arms so that they can gesticulate broadly while they make big declamatory statements. This style of theater derives from agitprop [agitation + propaganda], an openly ideological art that’s usually performed on street corners, or for huge audiences at a strike in front of a factory or, say, at a big union meeting. Part of the subversiveness of my toy theater is that it’s tiny, not huge like traditional agitprop, but powerful—like a T.V.
“The tradition of toy theater itself (not having anything to do with agitprop) is very old. My content, though, is new and very political. Besides this script of “Sanla Kloz,” I perform weekly with my toy theater of Terror As Usual, always with changing political scripts, usually retelling (“recycling”) the week’s news subversively. Literally too, my props and puppets are recycled newspaper (what’s called “cheap art”). It’s theater of trash—high concept/cheap means—using society’s cast-off, objects to tell important stories. It’s the opposite of fancy, inflated-art-market art that doesn’t critique the status quo.
“In Jewish terms, my production of “Sania Kloz”, except for its liny scale, is probably similar to Yiddish theater of the ’30’s, to famous experimental acting troupes like Artef. Artef wanted its form to be as radical as its message. It’s a tradition I inherit: Yiddish, politically conscious, emphasizing social relationships (gender/class) instead of psychological ones.
“Of course, there are plenty of layers of political comment and irony in the production of “Santa Kloz”. Christmas, usually a time of abundance, here becomes a time when Santa faints fun hunger. Christmas becomes not the time of the great birth, but the time of Santa dying or going under. The meaning of Christmas as a time of rebirth is critically understood as a rebirth through the acquisition of new objects.
“When I first performed “Santa” at a Yiddish folk arts camp during Christmas week of 1990, the U.S. was just mobilizing for mass slaughter in Iraq—a war to protect our lifestyle of consumption, of sacred consumption over which “Santa Kloz”, you might say, is the patron saint. At the end of Santa Kloz, a skeleton pushes Santa, swinging him through the air, linking capitalism with death. “On my stage set, the department store backdrop is a wall filled with little picture frames (actually rhinestone belt buckles). I hung tiny pictures of President Bush, Santa and a skeleton.
“Really, though, this explanation aside, what I really love is making good puppet shows.”