Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Capital Stage celebrates with SantaLand Diaries

‘Tis the season for theater companies to honor the holidays. They have two main choices: drag out the Dickens (as Tom Lehrer put it) or give us something new. Sacramento’s Capital Stage takes the second path with “Santaland Diaries,” an essay transformed into a short play.

Its celebrated author, David Sedaris, first read it on National Public Radio in 1992. It recalls a lean period in his life. As a “slacker” down to his last 20 bucks, he got a temporary job as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York. The entire experience was humiliating, even from the beginning, when he had to submit a urine sample, “with roaches and stems floating in it.”

But the concept alone was enough to destroy his self-image. “I am a thirty-three-year-old man,” he declares, “applying for a job as an elf.” And the memoir goes on to recount his demeaning experiences with frantic parents, unruly children and a demanding army of Santas. He even notes that if you rearrange the letters into an anagram, “Santa” becomes “Satan.”

On stage the essay becomes a 75-minute one-act, without intermission, performed by a lone actor addressing the audience, more than once even roaming among them. Directed by a savvy Janis Stevens, the versatile Gary Alan Wright works hard to do more than recite the text of the essay. Much of his action involves almost balletic changes of costume as he wrings every drop of humor out of the situation.

The action takes place on a minimal yet charming set by Jonathan Williams. First we have the elf room, where Sedaris waits to be interviewed. Then we get a Santa throne, surrounded by toys and a couple of tiny buildings with blinking lights.

But most of the essay’s charm is in its witty observations. “It is the SantaLand policy to take a picture of every child, which the parent can either order or refuse. People are allowed to bring their own cameras, video recorders, whatever. It is the multimedia groups that exhaust me. There are parents bent over with equipment, relentless in their quest for documentation.”

If the play and its parent essay are supposed to be satire, the target seems unclear. Most of Sedaris’ complaints reveal his own demeaning behavior, not kids behaving like kids or parents acting like parents. If anything, he faults a society that compels a grown man to portray an elf just to stay alive.

The chief weakness in the show comes from Joe Mantello’s adaptation. Though Wright manages to romp energetically around the stage, he can’t turn an essay into a play. Apparently the essay worked well enough on radio, but in a theater we expect to see something happen on stage, something more than changes of costume. As Marshall McLuhan famously said years ago, “The Medium is the Message.” He might have said, more precisely, that the medium controls the message.

“The Santaland Diaries” continues through December 27 at the Delta King Theatre, 1000 Front Street in Old Sacramento. As noted in the press release, the play is “for mature elves only.” Performances are Wednesday and Saturday at 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Added performances are at 2 p.m. on December 12 and 19; 7 p.m. on December 13, 20, 22. Tickets are $31 for Saturday, $27 for other days. For tickets or other details call (916) 995-5464 or go to www.capstage.org.

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