Who among us hasn't toiled in retail or restaurant hell during the holidays to pick up some extra cash? Who hasn't racked up a sleighful of horror stories involving frantic kids and their even more frantic parents? And who hasn't considered him- or herself a mall whore during the four or five weeks spent in the trenches? Not only has writer David Sedaris had his share of these experiences, he put his most memorable (or would that be most horrifying?) down on paper as The Santaland Diaries.
Originally conceived as a short story and now adapted as a one-man stage play (by Joe Mantello), The Santaland Diaries recount the author's holiday stint as an elf in Santaland at Macy's Department Store in New York. "It's very clear at the beginning that he is doing this out of desperation, and it just gets worse and worse and worse," explains Curtis D. Proctor, who portrays Crumpet the Elf in Bad Epitaph Theater Company's presentation of Sedaris's tale (which, by the way, is not intended for children).
A few substitutions have been made "here and there," says Proctor, a musical theater vet. "I do get to sing in it a little bit. We threw that in." But most of The Santaland Diaries -- directed by Thomas Cullinan -- has been faithfully taken from Sedaris's original piece (which is featured in his collection Holidays on Ice, parts of which have made their way to Sedaris's NPR gigs, Morning Edition and This American Life).
"It's a satirical look at the commercialization of Christmas and the flakes that are hired as Santas and elves," Proctor says. "The play culminates when he realizes that the whole spirit of Christmas has been lost within the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. But there is a message at the end of it that leaves you with a cheery little [sense that] not all hope is lost; that there is some beauty in the Christmas season."
The set itself is minimal. The stage is centered on Santa's house, with a chair and a few festive decorations. Proctor is responsible for transforming into various characters laboring among the sidelines: other elves, shoppers, kids, moms and dads, even Santa himself. "David fashioned these characters after people he's seen," Proctor points out. "I've fashioned them after people I know. I'm sure all my friends are going to ask, "Omigod, was that me?'"
Proctor speculates that some parts of the bizarre, almost surreal play are probably fictionalized, but is quick to add, "Then again, I don't know. I've never been in New York as a Macy's Christmas elf." There are children crying and parents screaming at the crying children, and "through it all, he has to remain cheerful. And I certainly can sympathize with that, especially with the holiday jobs I've had in customer relations or waiting tables."
This is Proctor's first one-man show. He says breaking down the fourth wall between him and the audience poses the biggest obstacle. "I'm telling a story to the audience and recreating it as best I can," he explains, adding that his past roles, including a part in Epitaph's Sin, have always involved interplay with other actors.
Technically, he doesn't have much to fall back on, either. "Since there isn't this huge Santaland [onstage], you have to be very physical while making the audience visualize what it's supposed to look like with the train sets and the bridges," he says. "There aren't these elaborate sets to wow everyone. I'm basically painting a small world." -- Michael Gallucci
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