THE WEDGE — Bryant-Lake Bowl’s holiday lineup includes a few shows that could rightly be called BLB classics.
These are annual offerings that pack them into the bar-restaurant-bowling alley’s cozy black-box theater year after year, like “A Very Die Hard Christmas” — making its fifth-annual appearance this month— and novelist and actor Lorna Landvik’s improvised “Party in the Rec Room,” which has been running even longer. For a decade now, BLB audiences have willingly subjected themselves to annual screenings of 1978’s campy and (deservedly) much-maligned “Star Wars Holiday Special,” bravely sacrificing 90-plus minutes of their lives to raise money for Toys for Tots.
Then there’s Janelle Ranek’s “Letters to Santa,” which Ranek — who lives in the CARAG neighborhood just across Lake Street from the BLB — has been putting on every Christmas season for something like 15 years, now. That’s ample time to build a following.
“I have some people who, after the show — I have know idea who they are — say, ‘We come every year,’” she said. “It’s cool, because some of the characters are kind of iconic, and people really expect them.”
Ranek developed the idea for her one-woman show from her concept of Santa Claus as confessor — the all-seeing, knows-when-you’ve-been-bad-or-good character from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” (When you really think about it, the jolly old elf is creepier than the NSA.)
Ranek has performed on Twin Cities stages for more than 20 years, appearing at the Children’s Theatre Company, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and Jungle Theater. She has a background in improv, including early career stints with Brave New Workshop and Stevie Ray’s Improv Company. These days, she teaches and runs workshops.
The 90-minute show, co-written with Brenda Lucy, is mostly scripted but also includes improvised elements. Let the kids stay home and watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” again; this holiday special is for the adults.
Each year, Ranek plays 10 or more different characters who each want something special for Christmas and are keenly aware that St. Nick knows exactly how naughty or nice they’ve been over the past year. The quick-change character transformations, which take place in full view of the audience, are part of the show.
“I figured it out, and over the years I’ve put in about 45 different characters,” she said. “And if a character comes back, and oftentimes they do because people really like them, it’s just like (real) people: They have a different story. Time has passed, and they want something else.”
Take little Lois, who is perpetually 8 years old in Ranek’s world (and a bit hyperactive). One year, all she wanted from Santa was to become a superhero.
“The following year, she had a cape, and there were people who actually noticed it,” Ranek said.
Holiday wishes get a little twisted in “Letters to Santa.” A slightly maniacal, overbearing mother schemes with Santa Claus to bring her closer together with her adult son.
“She wants Santa to injure her so her son will take pity and not leave for a job,” she said.
For the closing segment of “Letters to Santa,” Ranek becomes perhaps her favorite character, Gloria, whose signature accessories are a cigarette and vodka martini. She takes questions from the audience and dispenses profanity-peppered advice through a smudge of misapplied lipstick.
“It’s just a free-for-all,” Ranek said. “… There’s really no telling what Gloria will do. She can kind of get away with anything.”
She said “Letters to Santa” is “not incredibly raunchy, but it has a nice bite to it.” After 15 years of performing for holiday audiences, she knows people are seeking a bit of an escape at this time of year.
“I honestly think people, especially now, they want to laugh,” Ranek said. “They want to be entertained.”
Letters to Santa GENETICALLY MODIFIED
When: Dec. 15, 16, 22, 23, 29 and 30. All shows at 7 p.m.; doors at 6 p.m.
Where: Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St.
Info: 825-3737, bryantlakebowl.com