Oddly, at some point during the play St. Nicholas—a one-man show written by Conor McPherson and currently playing at Hyde Park Theatre, starring Ken Webster—the Bronte sisters popped into my head. I will attempt to explain why, though I make no promise of being sensical. (Please note: nonsensical is a word, and technically sensical is not, but today it is.)
Even though the only Bronte sister I ever read was Charlotte, I have this ancient recollection of being taught that the Bronte sisters lived a very holed up existence and that they created tiny little books that demonstrated massive imagination. On its surface, St. Nicholas appears, at least initially, to be a small thing. One man—a drunken Irish ex-theatre critic—tells us a story in two acts, for a total of maybe 80 minutes. During the story, a number of concepts come up, some of which seem like smallish ideas, just like those Bronte books were so small. But then, your brain latches on to the little thoughts, and you realize the bigness contained therein, and before you know it, your mind wants to race off down different paths, to explore on its own the ideas McPherson raises in the moment they are being raised.
Fortunately, Webster is such a fantastic actor that it wasn’t hard to choose between staying in the moment and hanging on to his every word or allowing the brain to give into the temptation to wander. I picked the former, saving the latter for post-show mental mastication.
What makes the writing so excellent is that it is super-meta. As I’ve said 10,000 times, I’m not one for spoilers in my reviews. But I’ll give you a hint of an example: early on Webster’s unnamed character explains just how despicable and power hungry theatre critics can be. This called to mind a bit of commentary I wrote last year about a particular youngster in Austin who fancies himself a critic, but who apparently lives to simply bash the shit out of any show that he himself is not personally involved in producing, perhaps because it gives him a false sense of power. With this introduction by St. Nicholas’s sole character came my mind’s first temptation to wander— to wonder about critics who first saw the play, knowing that if they chose to condemn it they’d be demonstrating just the point McPherson makes about self-important critics.
What makes the performance so exceptional is that Webster holds the audience utterly spellbound. He makes the storytelling seem effortless and extemporaneous, not at all like a memorized piece rehearsed by an actor. Not only that, he fully inhabits the character. I’ve said this before about watching actors I know in my real life—when they are able to get me to forget I know them, well that’s a pretty amazing trick. I’ve known Ken for years, worked with him when my own show played at HPT, and yet I completely forgot during St. Nicholas that this man onstage was Ken Webster in reality. Oh no, not at all. He was instead a troubled man who was learning some lessons the hard way, courtesy of some vampires. (Yes, I said vampires. I’m not saying anymore about that aspect—just go see for yourself.)
Toward the end of the show, I did again start to let my mind wander as the strength of the piece and the performance of it pushed my brain to overload. There was just so much to think about that it was getting hard to maintain my resolve to hold those thoughts until post-show. When I did momentarily cave, my head went in two curious directions. At one point, I started counting. If, in fact, Webster was wearing underwear and a belt (a fact he will have to confirm or deny) then we had a total of twelve things onstage besides the actor himself: two shoes, two socks, pants, shirt, vest, underwear, belt, table, chair, cup. Just a dozen things, not set changes, no fancy lighting, very little movement even. And yet, somehow, the story and delivery are so compelling that there seems to be so much more.
And the other thought I couldn’t fend off—the show concludes with some heavy thoughts about relationships. I won’t tell you what they were, just repeat that, as with much of the monologue, these thoughts seemed pretty basic on the surface, but felt profound in the end. I giddily decided to challenge folks to attend the show as a first date, because it would take balls to do so, and give plenty of fodder for conversation afterward, perhaps not all of it easy or comfortable, but certainly a way to gauge if a second date is in order.
That in turn got me thinking about a first date I went on to HPT back in 2007, which happened to be another one-man show starring Webster. The date in question turned out to be a total sociopath, and I later learned that he took ALL his first dates to HPT, which is how I came to host my show, The Dick Monologues, which was dedicated to that guy, at HPT. Thing is, even though that dude was a total ass, and as much as I hate to give him any credit, he at least had the sense to know that one way to impress a date, to demonstrate intelligence and foster instant appreciation, is to take that someone to watch Ken Webster perform. And so, in the end, while any appreciation I had for that scoundrel fast faded, my appreciation for Webster only continues to grow.
Such a little show, this St. Nicholas. Little like a Bronte book. You could hold it in the palm of your hand. But look closer, think about it. Because between the opening and closing lines, as between the covers of those little books, lies a universe of hard thinking, a mental workout that will leave your brain sweating and buzzing long after it’s over.