PUPPET MASTER: Kathy Burks and her team of puppeteers are staging The Nutcracker at Dallas Children’s Theater.
photography by Hal Samples
Some people take the Santa Claus thing hard. You know the one I mean: the bad news. For me, it was a kid named Bobby Valentine who lived up the street. He told me, probably when I mentioned a few days before Christmas what I was expecting from the big man, that there was no Santa Claus.

No Santa Claus, Arbery. The whole thing was a trick foisted off on us by adults who like to tell lies to kids and watch them get excited.

No Santa Claus? That had to mean, then, that my trusted mother had been leaving milk and cookies in the living room and then pretending that Santa had eaten them. The capacity for deception would have stunned Iago. And all that stuff about how Santa got in the house despite our not even having a chimney? A tissue of lies.

Bitter and world-weary, I slouched toward home and Bethlehem. The tempter Bobby Valentine, by the way, later distinguished himself by writing on the blank concrete side of the massive steps of the Baptist church, “My name is Bobby Valentine.” He couldn’t figure out how they caught him, but he was smart enough to know there was no Santa Claus. Unlike me, the easy mark. Wherever you are, Bobby, no matter how much time you’re serving, thanks a lot.

I tell this sad story largely to point out that there are two kinds of response to the bad news. One, more typical of girls in my experience, is to see the whole thing benignly, as something understandable, a way of providing magic to others. They immediately set about deceiving younger kids. For the guys, though, the news tends to be accompanied by a resolution not to be suckered again. If parents realized how firmly they are setting up a series of logical analogies between a) Santa Claus, b) the Wizard of Oz, and c) the authority figures of their religion, they’d be a little more hesitant to play up the fat guy too much to their sons. No wonder there’s been a drop in priestly vocations!

But enough of that. Seriously, I’m not bitter. I’ve been Santa Claus myself. I increasingly look like him. The point is, the two kinds of response to the bad news about Santa show up every year during the holiday season. On the one hand, there are Nutcrackers all over the place. There is always A Christmas Carol at the Dallas Theater Center—Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley in chains, then the whole pageant of Christmas past, Christmas present, and the scary Christmas future. “God bless us every one!” All that.

Then, on the other hand, there are the shows of the embittered, the disappointed and disenfranchised, the stocking-full-of-coals crowd. Inevitable Theatre Co., founded by Robert Neblett, is staging the area premiere of a dark comedy, Dog Sees God, based on the Peanuts characters—except that they “morph into dysfunctional teenagers, lost in a modern world that has stripped away their innocence.” Hmm. “CB questions the meaning of life after his beloved beagle dies from rabies.” (Is anybody out there listening?) Out at WaterTower Theatre, meanwhile, they bring back David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries, usually (but not last Christmas) starring local actor Nye Cooper, who would need to put on some weight to look as buff as Keith Richards.

This time last year, Cooper was getting ready to star in Angela Wilson’s play Dim All the Lights, not Santaland. “After five years of the show, I was a bit burned out on it,” he says. “Terry Martin knew it, I knew it. I believe they wanted someone a bit different who could give them a new take on the material and go in for the long haul. It made sense. It was primarily their decision, but it was time to move on. Angela Wilson and Cynthia Hestand offered me the part in Dim, so I jumped at it. I mean, from an elf to a disco-loving bi-polar suffering from brain cancer, one doesn’t get to make those leaps often. Even if I could, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about last year.”

And why should he? He was named a Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum honoree for his excellence as an actor in three different plays—Dim All the Lights, as well as Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander and Social Security, both at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Now he’s back at WaterTower.

“I realize I belong with Santaland in some weird way,” he says. “Believe it or not, I do tend to be a bit on the cynical—sometimes even slightly sarcastic—side. Please hold your gasps. I have to be honest: if I were stuck in a rotten job like being an elf at Macy’s, Macy’s would fire me. Really fast.”

Families with children, needless to say, might not believe that Christmas is Nye. So what should they do? Dallas Children’s Theater’s Robyn Flatt directs A Little House Christmas, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s A Little House on the Prairie. Also by DCT, for those who have missed seeing it in years past, is The Nutcracker. But do not sigh: this one is by Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts—Tchaikovsky’s music with a twist.

“We don’t use the puppets as dancers, except for two,” Burks says, surrounded by hundreds of puppets on the shelves of her workroom in the production wing of Rosewood Center. “Our nod to Baryshnikov is this puppet.” She produces a foppish-looking poodle of a fellow. “He leaps across the stage. There’s really not any dancing in it until we get to Land of the Sweets. We tell the story with dialogue and the music under, and we have a wonderful scene of the Nutcracker fighting the Mouse King.”

The techniques they use come from Czech black theater rods and Japanese bunraku. “The stage is black,” Kathy Burks explains, “and the puppets are in the light.”

“There’s a very thin curtain of light about 18 inches deep across the stage,” adds her son Douglass Burks, who also works with the DCT, “and the background is completely black. As the puppeteers stand directly behind the puppet, they’re all blacked up with hoods and gloves, and the puppet is out in the light. The puppeteers aren’t visible.”

At several points in the show, the puppets have to move across the whole width of the stage. “When Baryshnikov leaps”—the poodle—“you need three people to conduct him,” Kathy says, and Douglass shows him soaring, legs in a split. “He leaps across the entire 18-foot proscenium,” he says. “So we have to run, and it’s really fun to watch it from backstage.”

She agrees: “It’s really magical when done right with the puppets in the light. They do come alive, they really do breathe, and they move fluidly.” After all these years, they both marvel at it.

“What’s interesting,” Douglass says, “is we’ve had a lot of questions after the show from the audience, and we often get this question: ‘How do you get their mouths to move?’ ” They look at each other and laugh. He leans toward me. “The mouths don’t move, but the audience sees them.”

The German writer Heinrich von Kleist would understand that. He claims to have met a puppeteer who understood his art both philosophically and theologically. “Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god,” says the puppeteer. Kleist asks, “Does that mean that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he says, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

Enter Santa Claus, cookie in hand, waving at Bobby Valentine.

A Christmas Carol runs November 23 through December 24 at the DTC, 214-522-8499, www.dallastheatercenter.org. Dog Sees God runs December 6 through 22 at the Bath House Cultural Center, 972-215-8059, inevitabletheatre.blogspot.com. Santaland Diaries runs December 6 through 23 at WaterTower Theatre, 972-450-6232, www.watertowertheatre.org. A Little House Christmas runs November 30 through December 16 at El Centro Theater, staged by DCT, 214-740-0051, www.dct.org. The Nutcracker, at the DCT, runs November 24 through December 23.