A (not so) jolly old elf

Playwright Joseph Scrimshaw has a busy holiday

THE WEDGE — Let’s examine some of the (seemingly) benign lyrics from that holiday classic, "Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town":

"He sees you when you’re sleeping; He knows when you’re awake; He knows if you’ve been bad or good; So be good for goodness sake."

Strip away the cheerful melody and it starts to sound like a dire warning: He’s watching! Be good for goodness sake!

Pity the precocious child who, while his classmates naively repeat those lines, begins to view the main character in the school pageant as a sort of holiday vigilante, a jolly judge, jury and toy distributor.

Being an adult, playwright Joseph
Scrimshaw wasn’t so concerned about Santa Claus’ ultimate authority over the size of his Christmas stocking. No, Scrimshaw was more interested in the jolly old elf as a kind of supernatural voyeur.

"I really like the idea that Santa Claus sees all and knows all," he said. "… But in adult terms, it’s really creepy that he would know everything about our relationships."

That is the Santa Claus who comes climbing through the window of a married couple’s apartment in Scrimshaw’s comic play, "Fat Man Crying," showing this month at Minneapolis Theater Garage.

Scrimshaw’s two-act script takes your typical holiday tale and turns it inside out.

We know how the traditional Christmas story works, right? Start with some character lacking in compassion or a family rent by dysfunction, dose them with holiday spirit and, voilà: Christmas miracle!

In "Fat Man Crying," Scrimshaw starts out with happy couple and introduces holiday spirit in the form of a sad sack St. Nick. Then things start to fall apart.

"[Santa Claus] basically ends up telling them realities about their relationship that they didn’t know," he explained.

Scrimshaw said Santa, played by Brave New Workshop alumnus Tim Uren, is "like your charming but annoying uncle who kind of depresses everyone on Christmas Eve."

Santa is feeling down after peeping into the life of Dave, whose undiluted selfishness — even in the season of giving — threatens to drown Santa in an existential crisis.

Scrimshaw said he had a lot of fun putting his off-kilter spin on the traditional holiday show.

"It’s always a challenge to come up with the different angles on all the same ideas," he said. "… I was interested in [this story] because it’s really distinctly about the holiday, because it’s Santa Claus [in the play], but it also relates to larger issues in life like a play should."

Scrimshaw also set himself the challenge of creating "a new holiday tradition" (as his press materials put it) when the play debuted last year at the Minneapolis Theater Garage.

Two years in a row doesn’t amount to a tradition, yet. But the play generated enough positive buzz last December that it could be well on its way.

A very Scrimshaw Christmas

This holiday season promises to be a particularly busy time for Scrimshaw, who is well known for his fan-favorite Minnesota Fringe Festival contributions, not to mention his interactive romantic comedy "Adventures in Mating" (running every week forever at Bryan-Lake Bowl).

"Yeah, I have to cut back on ‘real Christmas,’ this year," he said, referring to off-stage gatherings with his own friends and family.

Scrimshaw also has a role in "Pride and Plot of Pointlessness," a Jane Austen parody-slash-homage showing every night after "Fat Man Crying" at the Minneapolis Theater Garage.

Then there’s the debut of his new play, "An Eventually Christmas: Holidays at the Mill," written for the Mill City Museum. Scrimshaw performed in the Mill’s annual Halloween tours for four years, growing familiar with the flourmill lore that inspired "An Eventually Christmas."

Set in 1920, the play revolves around that year’s blowout employee holiday party. The details of the extravaganza — a 12-hour affair, featuring four Santa Clauses who distributed presents to the mill employees’ children, a dance and sporting contests — were recorded in the mill’s internal newspaper, The Eventually News.

Scrimshaw was granted use of the museum’s Flour Tour ride, an oversized elevator that transports visitors from floor to floor, opening up to reveal animated sets depicting life in a working flour mill. Scrimshaw will deploy his actors on those sets and use the elevator to move his audience from scene to scene.

"It’s going to be, I think, a really new and interesting experience for people who are familiar with the Mill City Museum," he said.

And if that isn’t enough Scrimshaw for you, there’s always New Year’s Eve. He and his brother, Joshua, take over the Bryant-Lake Bowl theater for two performances of "The Scrimshaw Brothers’ New Year’s Eve Spectacular!"

So, here’s wishing you happy holidays and a Scrimshaw New Year!

“Fat Man Crying,” written and produced by Joe Scrimshaw, runs through Dec. 28 at Minneapolis Theater Garage, 711 W. Franklin Ave. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Regular tickets are $20 or $15 for seniors, students and Fringe button-holders. 280-9210. www.josephscrimshaw.com.