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Bearded

I’ll never forget the time I took a young niece — she was maybe seven or eight — to see Santa Claus. She’d been hearing rumors that there was no such dude, but remained defiant. No one would demolish her dreams! When we turned a corner at the mall, lo and behold: TWO Santa Claus’s, beards pulled down, on smoke-break!!

Rabid disillusionment.

Katherine Harroff’s Bearded comes from the other side: it asks what it’s like to be a Santa, and shows why he deserves beaucoup downtime.

It’s a day in the life of Nick, his first on the job as the Merry Ole man. He comes to Westwield’s Morton Plaza Shopping Centre expecting intensive training – everything from how to “ho ho ho” to proper interaction, to wearing a fat-suit.

Instead he gets the actor’s nightmare: you’re on, pal. His only tip, keep the kids occupied long enough so Jessica, dressed as Santa’s helper, can take their picture.

Harroff and Circle Circle have earned an impressive reputation for grounding their works in local references. For Bearded, the group interviewed San Diegans who have played Santa. The piece, in its world premiere, runs the gambit of those experiences.

Several are a scream. The ensemble — Cory Hammond, Keith Hammond, Michael Parrott, Taylor Wycoff — runs off-stage and returns, often in an instant, with sharply defined, Saturday Night Live-funny characters and bits (like the, like, cool babes who end every sentence with a question mark; or blitzkrieg ebullience, or the whacko in the straightjacket).

Then in comes Lila, her stage fright so bad she can’t remember what to say. Or parents so controlling you fear for the kid’s future. Or young Manny, who admits he hasn’t been “good” — he’s had to steal to eat — who doesn’t ask for toys, and who’ll break your heart.

Credit to director Patrick Kelly: for moving the show at a brisk clip and, with the cast, for inventing funny and often touching stage business.

Shaun Tuazon’s set — five gigantic boxes, decorated like Xmas presents; and a revolving center unit — establishes just the right atmosphere, as do Kristin McReddie’s costumes (and a panoply of wigs) and Mike Brown’s sound design.

Laura Kaplan-Nieto (Jessica) and Soroya Rowley (Lynne) play Santa’s bickering, good-cop/bad-cop co-workers to good effect. Their nicely earned resolution reveals Bearded to be a holiday show, as they say, “for all ages.”

But what’s it like to sit in that chair, with a scratchy white beard and long hair and carrying 50 extra pounds under hot lights (by Bonnie Breckenridge), and be bombarded by children hoping for, if not the stars, then at least the most expensive iPad at the mall? And one after another after another.

What’s it like to sit in judgment of a child’s entire year, summing up the bads and the goods for the Yuletide trick-or-treat?

And what’s it like to hear their stories and be helpless?

Best of show: Michael Nieto’s Nick has an eerie innocence. Possibly because brand-new to the job — but maybe not — his Santa pays attention, regards each child as an individual, actually hears them. And is often moved.

Nieto never forces this compassion. If anything, he underplays it. But it’s always there, steadily so.

Okay, so there may not be a St. Nick. But then again, maybe the real one just wandered into Westwield’s Morton Plaza needing a job.

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