Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

Sedaris' Elf In Elm Grove

Santaland Diaries With Jonathan West and Tom Klubertanz

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I’d first heard David Sedaris’ voice on a twenty-year-old boom box in a college dormitory on the East Side. Halfway into my sophomore year in college, I was surfing through the stations when I heard the voice of Ira Glass—that guy who did Audio Arcade for NPR back in the ‘80’s. He was starting a new show—This American Life. A couple of months later, there’s the distinct voice of David Sedaris talking about being an elf in New York at Macy’s for Christmas. It was a very, very funny piece.

I’ve listened to it nearly every Christmas since. The piece was wildly popular with a lot of people. And so it’s been staged quite a few times by people who don’t sound like David Sedaris—don’t have that distinct voice. It’s a very soft voice with a very subtle sarcasm about it that can slip from comedy to something altogether more serious in very little time.

I’d seen John McGivern do The Santaland Diaries some time ago. Having seen McGivern’s latest show, I’ve come to realize that McGivern’s story about being a Christmas elf as a kid is far more  suited to him. Sedaris’ unique bitterness sounds so much better in his own voice . . . and so I was a bit reluctant to go out to the Sunset Playhouse and see Jonathan West’s staging of Santaland. But as it was one of the few holiday shows opening locally that wasn’t  around last year, I decided to go.

The bus ride out to Sunset from my house is long. There’s a transfer involved. I listened to that old Santaland episode of This American Life a couple of times on the ride out. Not the best idea as I’d end up hearing the same stories three different times from two different people over the course of the evening, but it actually ended up being very, very relaxing.

The parking lot of the Sunset Playhouse seemed relatively packed. A Friday night crowd for the Sunset’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life mixed with those of us going to see Santaland. Starting roughly 30 minutes before Santaland, the main stage’s opening curtain emptied out the lobby quite a bit. The rest of us stood in line for the eventual opening of the studio theatre.

Drinking Comedy In Frosty’s Absence With Nate Press

It’s been a while since I’ve been to anything at the Sunset’s studio theatre. It’s quite comfortable in there . . . kind of feels like a relatively small room at a convention center. There’s a bar over in the corner. On my way back from picking-up a Guinness, I stopped to have a chat with actor Nate Press . . . the transition between serious work with Murder Castle and the return to sketch comedy work with Bye-Bye Liver sounds interesting. Press had confirmed what a total lack of press suggested—the mostly-puppet production of Neil Haven’s Who Killed Santa? will NOT be making it to the stage this season. Press, who did good work as Frosty in that show finds himself returning to alcohol-based sketch comedy for the holidays. With things slowing down in the last half of the month, I’m hoping to finally make it to BBL . . .

Jonathan West, Independent Staging and the Importance of the Right Atmosphere

The Atmosphere began to settle-in a bit before the show. On the walk in, we’d all received red baseball caps and sharpies. There was a slip of paper that came with the hat. There were no programs. The stage set for the production is a strange molded plastic collage courtesy of Ray Jivoff. Every year around this time, my wife and I make a point of driving by a mannequin someone sets-up in the window of an East Side home dressed as Santa. We call it the Creepy Santa. Up until I saw the set for this production of Santaland, I never really knew how creepy molded plastic Santas could look.

It’s a very gaudy collection of molded plastic Christmas items, but after a while, the feeling of worn, discarded Christmases begin to takeover. The space resonates with the undead polymer resin of forgotten holidays. It’s kind of disturbing, but only if you take the time to think about it. Overall, the atmosphere that Jonathan West is able to deliver here is a very festive holiday party kind of atmosphere.

It’s something that’s easy to overlook when trying to render a theatrical experience—the idea that this is a group of people getting together to experience something—and in this case have a good time with decent comedy.  Jonathan West puts everything together in a way that amplifies the sense of fun . . .  the comically lifeless voice of West making announcements over the course of the production is a really clever touch—probably the single funniest bit about the staging. The show’s star Tom Klubertanz picks up that festive, fun mood and runs with it. Yes, it feels a bit forced in places, but this is a very, very fun show. 

Jonathan West’s production of The Santaland Diaries runs through December 18th at the Sunset Playhouse. A review of the show runs in this week's Shepherd-Express. 




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