For those of us who long for something fresh during the holiday theatrical season, Paul Sapp‘s Lady Misrule certainly fits the bill. Subtitled A Christmas Noir, the play offers a grown-up view of blind faith and entrenched traditions along with what it takes to change them for the better. In Tiny Engine Theatre‘s production at Durham’s Walltown Children’s Theatre, the playwright directs a uniformly talented cast in an amusing and thought-provoking staging ‒ despite a script so densely packed with characters and backstory that it taxes first-time viewers to assemble all the parts.

The story centers on Stephen, an adman who’s been fired because his heart’s not really into mass-market consumption. While cleaning out his office, he gets a letter informing him his runaway daughter, Nora, has died at the North Pole and he must travel to St. Nick’s realm to retrieve her body. On the ocean voyage there, he meets alluring Connie, who flirts with him over drinks while telling him surprising secrets about the unsettled state of operations at their destination.

Once there, Stephen finds that his daughter’s death is shrouded in mystery, with no one willing to give out any information. He encounters several raucous and scheming elves, a surprising former acquaintance, and a decidedly un-jolly St. Nick. Connie turns out to be more connected to everything than she first revealed and she’s selflessly determined to change what she deems an untenable situation, no matter the cost.

The script has many twists, making it difficult to discuss all of the characters in full. What can be said is that on the production’s second night, the cast was fully engaged, confident, and nuanced ‒ even more impressive because playwright/director Sapp also had to take on the roles usually played by Nick Popio, encompassing elves, a historian, and a ship worker. Sapp deftly managed them all, easily interacting with fellow performers Emily Levinstone and Jessica Flemming, both adept at differentiating each character they played. It doesn’t give too much away that Flemming also embodies the spirit of dead Nora, whose wise musings to the audience fleshed out much of the situation’s backstory.

Page Purgar supplied subtle variety to Danni, the head of North Pole security, whose stern façade belies a soul needing love, while Noelle Barnard Azarelo imbued the conniving elf Kiki with sensual abandon and frightening evil. Erica Heilmann made a sympathetic Tanya, wife to St. Nick, to whom Kurt Benrud lent a believably world-weary resignation.

David Berberian turned in one of his most appealing portrayals as Stephen, astutely projecting the character’s emotional reactions at every new puzzlement and disclosure. Laurel Ullman easily commanded the stage as the increasingly heroic Connie, changing chameleon-like to suit her needs in laying out her life-changing strategies.

Sapp has spent a lot of effort forging a complete mythology that contradicts the upbeat sweetness of accepted St. Nicholas/Santa Claus traditions, which exposes what blindly following precedent can do to the human condition. The details of this alternate view are densely laid out in every scene, made more difficult to grasp because the scenes are so brief (some merely a minute or so) and so cinematic (often back and forth between the same locations).

The scene changes were disruptive because of the time taken to set them up, involving constant rearranging of furniture, positioning of props, and long walks off and onto the very deep playing space, placing much of the action too far away.

Given the many layers of Sapp’s narrative, the story would seem better served by being a book, giving readers the ability to absorb so many details on their own time, or a film, more easily allowing the quick changes of location and adding helpful visuals. As it is, focusing the storyline on fewer characters and working out longer scenes would make a more satisfying theatrical experience.

The show is definitely for adults only, as it includes some profanity and overt sexual situations, not to mention sophisticated philosophizing. It’s good to have Tiny Engine back after a two-year hiatus because the company has always demonstrated a keen eye for talent and bold selection of material. This show falls squarely into both categories and is worth a visit to support the company and spur it on to more of the same.

Lady Misrule continues through Saturday, December 15. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.