Polar Bears, a World Premiere at Main Stage West, Sebastopol CA
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
Photos by Eric Chazankin
Do You Believe in Santa?
Memories, they say, take on a rose-gold glow that gets softer with the passage of time. This is especially true around the holidays and the traditions that surround them. The world premiere of “Polar Bears”, local journalist and playwright David Templeton’s latest autobiographical one-man show, has plenty of golden memories laced with fun and humor. But it also reveals deep personal pain and disappointment, and the result is a courageous, beautifully crafted show that will bring laughter and tears, usually at the same time. It is, hands down, his finest effort to date, and that’s really saying something. His two previous shows “Wretch Like Me” (presented last year at the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival) and “Pinky” (also premiering at Main Stage West) were each brilliant in their own way, acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.
So why the title? When looking back on his life, Templeton discovered that polar bears seemed to be almost like his own personal totem, especially during the holidays: turning up on wrapping paper (a giveaway that gifts weren’t from Santa); again at a visit to the zoo during a poignant moment; again at a funeral through a child’s sweetly touching malapropism, and in many other ways. They become a recurring image throughout the tale.
The story begins with Templeton’s marriage to his first wife, Gladys, and the birth of their two children, Jenna and Andy. As soon as the kids are old enough to understand the idea of Christmas, it dawns on young Templeton that he must maintain the magic of Santa Claus at all costs, so his children will keep believing until they are ready for the truth. Santa represents love, faith and the hope that goodness still lives, even when bad things happen.
He enlists Gladys in the sweet conspiracy, but she is taken away much too soon. The broken promises of the dying mother seem like a betrayal to her children. He and Gladys had been divorced for some time before her death, so for the young father, it becomes more important than ever to preserve in his children the belief that Santa Claus is real. The enchantment, magic and mystery of the holiday season can take the pain away, however briefly. New traditions, like watching “The Santa Clause” and “The Lion King” are born and treasured.
Templeton’s personal charm and warmth, and his conversational storytelling style enfolds the audience in an intimate embrace. His talent as a playwright and his gift of mimicry serves him well in his characterizations of his kids, his dad and various other characters that move in and out of the narrative.
In this, his most personal work yet, he combines human insight with funny remembrances, displaying a vulnerability not seen in his other writings. He has also grown and matured as an actor since his first solo play, “Wretch Like Me”. There is a poetic beauty in “Polar Bears”, enhanced with sensitive and tender humor by director Sheri Lee Miller. Through her guidance, the audience is kept on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. During the course of the one-set play, little stuffed animals, ornaments and even a steamer trunk take on multiple roles filled with deep meaning. Set design, by Main Stage West’s artistic director Elizabeth Craven, has a lovely ambiance. It’s a Christmas idyll, complete with glowing candles, garlands and a perfectly decorated tree.
“Polar Bears” grabs at the heart and tickles the funnybone, a perfect mix for the holidays. It gives us another reason for the season – belief in the power of love.
When: Now through December 20, 2015
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
5:00 p.m. Sundays
Tickets $15 to $27
Where: Main Stage West
104 North Main Street
Sebastopol, CA 95472