My parents came to visit me over the holiday weekend. It was the first time I hosted them for Christmas, rather than going to my childhood home -- which led to some "Wow! I'm an adult!" moments.
Religion-wise, the three of us range from "Catholic-raised agnostic who wants to be more spiritual" (me) to "Attends Catholic church but is cagey whether she actually believes it" (Mom) to "Liberal, believing Catholic who also enjoys Eastern spiritual traditions" (Dad). So we didn't mind having what my mother called a "pagan Christmas." On Christmas Eve, we went to see The Arabian Nights at Berkeley Rep -- i.e., we journeyed to the People's Republic of Berkeley to see a play rife with ribaldry, based on folklore from the Muslim world. How un-American of us!
The Arabian Nights was just as good this time as it was nearly two years ago, and I was so happy to be able to share it with my parents. (That's one of the negatives of theater: as such an ephemeral art form, it is rare to be able to share your favorite theater pieces with everyone you love.) Even the prologue -- the transformation of the theater from a bare stage to a rich panoply of Oriental carpets and hanging lamps -- moved me to tears. And I cried again at the ending, a parable about the importance of telling stories and sharing one's wisdom. The moral of this tale is that stories "come from God." (And how moving, how ineffably moving, that this is the first time the word "God" is used in the play. In the other scenes, the characters consistently say "Allah" to mean "God" -- and Westerners are apt to forget that the two words are synonyms, because "Allah" sounds so exotic. Then, in the last scene, they say "God," and it socks you in the gut.)
So, maybe I'm not a pagan after all. Because theater -- intensely felt, humanistic theater -- is my religion. Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights is a religious experience and the perfect show on which to end my busiest-ever year of theatergoing.
Last week I participated in the holiday Theater Pub show, a collection of monologues and scenes about "How I Learned the Truth about Santa Claus." And that got me thinking about how Santa Claus himself is a form of theater -- a costume we put on, a lie we tell, a charade we keep up, a character we portray, because it makes the world a more interesting and entertaining and happy place. We talk about "the magic of theater," but we also talk about "the magic of Christmas," and in both cases we are referring to a similar kind of emotion. The red velvet curtain of the theater bespeaks the same promise of wonder and delight as the red velvet suit of Santa Claus.
When I was a high school freshman (ten years ago!) I was in a community theater show called Holiday Magic Breakfast Theatre. We were a bunch of teenagers dressing up and singing Christmas carols and Disney songs for an audience of children ten-and-under, serving them breakfast, and concluding with a visit from Santa. At the time, I thought that the title (indeed, the whole show) was pretty cheesy. I wore a tacky calico Christmas dress and pranced around the room belting out "Winter Wonderland" while little kiddies and their parents ate soggy pancakes. But now that I'm older, I can appreciate it more, what we did -- it may not have been Great Theater, but it got such a warm response every time. And "Holiday Magic Breakfast Theater" -- are there four lovelier words in the English language?
Santa Claus is magic.
Theater is magic, and magic is theater, as Shakespeare teaches us in The Tempest. (And, theater is therapy is magic, as Cutting Ball's The Tempest taught me earlier this year.)
Theater is storytelling.
Stories come from God.
God is love.
Love is magic.
God is omnipresent.
Theater is Santa Claus is magic is love is God is omnipresent.