St. Louis theater companies rise to the occasion when it comes to the Christmas season. Many strive to present work that deals with the themes of the holiday (renewal, compassion, peace, the birth of Jesus, family, Charles Dickens, etc.), either sincerely or archly. But Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's boom, currently being produced by R-S Theatrics, might be the strangest Christmas play this town has seen. It's a dark comedy about scientific theories, the weakness and strength of humanity and piscine wisdom, which doesn't sound very Christmas-y. Once you're inside Nachtrieb's world, however, which is quickly and believably established under director Sarah Lynne Holt, you will recognize, and more importantly, feel those familiar themes.
There's Jules (Andrew Kuhlman), a biology grad student who posted a Craigslist ad for a quickie sexual encounter with any woman who will respond — even though Jules is gay. There's Jo (Elizabeth Van Pelt), the eager respondent who's only there to score in hopes of getting a good grade on a paper in her journalism class. Joining them are a tank full of scared fish (they're only going to witness the sex, not participate) and a mysterious woman standing at a podium whom neither Jules nor Jo appears to notice.
The big question is not will they or won't they, but can they bang one out after an extinction-level event hits the planet, something Jules and his timorous fish have determined will happen tonight. That's why he chose to set up his lab in the university's old bomb shelter, which he's stocked with food, water and feminine hygiene products.
Yeah, it's weird. But if you look closely, you can see those Christmas themes, albeit through a warped lens. Jo and Jules' potential offspring will renew the planet, assuming he's correct about the end of everything, and their terror sex might bring both of them a sense of peace. As for the fish, the ichthys is one of the oldest symbols representing Jesus. (I may be grasping.)
Jules is not sure he's up to the task of repopulating the world through heterosexual relations, even under less stressful conditions, but he's willing to take one for the team. Kuhlman gives him a maniacal optimism that borders on insanity. How does he remain so ferociously chipper despite Jo's open indifference to him as both a man and a scientist? His back story is one of endless woe (Kuhlman romps through the telling with almost comic glee at the cruelty of it all), which has led him to believe he's destined for greatness.
Jo is tough to convince. She's stubborn, angry and quick to lash out at him. Jo also suffers from a mysterious condition that causes her to "die" for brief periods; her heart stills and her breathing stops, and then she's fine again. Van Pelt gives Jo an emotional core that goes beyond tough girl or angry woman. She slowly lowers Jo's shields until you behold a young woman who desperately wants some sort of human connection, which she believes is difficult to find and impossible to maintain in the modern world. Only in the throes of anonymous sexual encounters can two people find comfort together, according to Jo — and then it's gone.
As for the woman who watches all of this from behind the podium, the less said the more you'll enjoy the surprise. Nancy Nigh does an excellent job in this important role.
The biggest surprise boom offers is how happily our story ends. Nobody gets what they came for, but everybody finds what they need — compassion, comfort and a sense of joy. Just like Christmas morning, only much, much stranger.
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