If you're trying to figure out if humanity is basically good, to paraphrase Anne Frank, or if people, when given a chance, will gleefully torture their peers (Google the "Stanford Prison Experiment"), it's time to give up. There's no accounting for the random generosity and cruelty that we homo sapiens will show to one another.
This philosophical koan is played out within a taxicab in Will Kern's brilliant drama Hellcab, first performed by one of those little risk-taking Chicago troupes in 1992. The plot is simple: A gruff Chicago cabbie picks up and drops off a series of fares a few days before Christmas. Against the backdrop of a bitterly cold Chicago winter and the peculiar vibes -- sometimes warm, sometimes freaky -- brought on by Christmas, a parade of folly slides across the back seat of the cab.
The cabbie picks up a nutjob who gets excited about space exploration and funerals, and a wisecracking pregnant woman fixing to burst. His interaction with a woman who's just been raped is both gut- and heart-wrenching and so brief that it leaves the audience raw. Then there's the drug abuser who angrily slams his girlfriend's head into the seat. Too violent, you think? That's called realism, kids.
The fares offer their blunt confessions and mini-dramas to the cabbie, and the absorbing scenes -- there's actually 26 of them -- are paced rapidly, gliding from one to the next so effortlessly that an intermission would only derail the action, so there isn't one.
John Pierson (pictured) stars as the unnamed cabbie in Spotlight Theatre's production of Hellcab at the new Soulard Theater (1921 South Ninth Street; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, December 12 through 21; $15-$18; 314-918-8424; www.spotlighttheatrestlonline.org). -- Byron Kerman
Easy, Big Guy
Skatin' with Santa
Santa doesn't just sit in malls, his femurs gradually bending back from the weight of hundreds of local kids on his lap, silently fuming while elves lead the kiddies to his throne. No, the jolly fat man knows that in this day and age even a Santa has got to stretch his legs and kick it every now and then to avoid an early death from the sedentary life.
Some Santas work it on the disco floor, while others play on that extra-jumbo Minnesota Vikings offensive line. Then there's the Santas who ice skate. Nicole Bobek herself would blush at the sight of the double-lutzing Kris Kringle who glides across Forest Park's Steinberg Ice Rink at 1 p.m. Saturday, December 13, and Sunday, December 14 ($4 to $6 admission, $2 skate rental, 314-367-RINK, Forest Park). Come skate with Santa, drink cocoa with him and otherwise commune with this beefy, misunderstood fellow. -- Byron Kerman
Godspeed You White Christmas
The Downtown St. Louis Residents Association is dreaming of an urban Christmas, just like the ones we used to know. Their showing of White Christmas at the lovely American Theatre (416 North Ninth Street) aims to conjure the glimmering days when downtown was abuzz with carols and lights. The silver-screen cavortings of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney will be preceded by a holiday sing-along, a visit from Santa Claus and other surprises (appropriately so -- what would Christmas be without surprises?). The event honors the spirit of the season in a more concrete way, too: Proceeds benefit the 100 Neediest Cases and the Boys Club of St. Louis. Friday, December 12's showing starts at 7 p.m.; Saturday, December 13 showtimes are 1 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available by calling Ticketmaster at 314-421-4400. For more information go to allaboutfunusa.com or call 314-752-0100. -- Jason Toon
The phrases "incredible geeks" and "massive endurance" rarely show up in the same sentence, but the incredible geeks who scored tickets to the Lord of the Rings marathon at Ronnie's 20 Cine (5320 Lindbergh Boulevard, 314-822-2463) will need to display massive endurance to make it to the Crack of Doom. The first two films are being shown in their expanded form (with a 2:30 p.m. start time), and the debut of the final third of the series, The Return of the King, runs three hours and twenty minutes, pushing the full trilogy to more than ten hours. Sadly enough (in more ways than one), the marathon sold out in less time than it will take to watch it, but you can still catch all three movies through the week -- you big dork, you. -- Jordan Harper
Roger Ebert, everyone's favorite tub-o'-popcorn-shaped film critic, has unique authority to disparage the fruits of Hollywood's dream factories: He's actually written a movie himself -- and it's a sequel. His Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, directed by legendary breast-man Russ Meyer, is positively Ebertian in its intricacies. This heartwarming story recounts the rise of girl-band the Carrie Nations and their corruption (both physically and morally) by the salacious star-makers of early-'70s Los Angeles. The dialogue is "with-it," the acting is "far-out," and the nudity, like the drug usage, is plentiful. Highlights include gun-barrel fellatio and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. Ah, Ebert, you hopeless romantic. Beyond screens at 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday (December 12 through 14) in Webster University's Moore Auditorium (470 East Lockwood Avenue, 314-968-7487). Tickets are $4 to $6. -- Paul Friswold