Tonight I saw a woman shake and slap her sobbing daughter, yelling, "Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man's lap and smile, or I'll give you something to cry about."
Meet "Crumpet," a thirty-something jaded mall imp clad in striped tights and a worn green polyester smock. A jolly old elf, he's not.
He's played by Gary Culig, associate artistic director of the Bug Theatre, who has brought him to life in the Bug's production of The SantaLand Diaries for the past four years. The offbeat one-man narrative, written by David Sedaris and adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, tells the story of an unemployed pothead/playwright who, on a dare, takes a job as a holiday elf at Macy's department store in Manhattan. Crumpet (the elfin name he chooses) shares the trials and tribulations he undergoes as Santa's helper while conveying the behind-the-scenes yuletide madness of the shopping-mall SantaLand, where peppermint sticks have been tossed aside for Prozac.
"It's one of those roles where the writing goes pretty well with my personality -- or so I've been told," says Culig. "I don't know if that's a compliment or not."
Santa no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things.
In sardonic conversations between himself and the audience, Crumpet relentlessly dishes the glad-tidings gossip of neurotic St. Nicks, promiscuous fellow elves, atrocious children and irrational parents. "They're the kind of thoughts that everyone can relate to but perhaps shouldn't be spoken out loud," adds Culig. "I worked retail for ten years, so I can relate to the chaos of retail around the holiday season and the commercialism that comes with it."
Today a child told Santa Ken that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those turtles.
The unpredictable play takes a hidden twist, and while sifting through sugarplum-coated capitalism, Crumpet unearths the true spirit of Christmas in a could-be Santa. At the same time, the Bug seems to have started a holiday tradition.
"Many people have come all four years. It's a really funny play, but it's also heartwarming," says Culig. "There's a line from one of the Santas: 'The most important thing is to love other people as much as they love you.' I can tell I'm a part of the audience's evening, and it feels good that so many people come out and see this show. I guess I'm more of a sap than David Sedaris."
I wanted to be an elf because it was one of the most frightening career opportunities I had ever come across.
This year the play has a new director, Luanne Nunes de Char, as well as some fresh staging and costuming. Culig promises, however, that the integrity of the play and the theater will stay put. "The Bug is not alternative theater," explains Culig. "It may be darker or more cynical, but it's not experimental and remains pretty digestible. It does tend to be a bit bohemian at times, but it has a lot of heart."
I hate working with Santa Doug, who tends to spit when he talks. It just gushes out every time he opens his mouth. Tonight a little girl wiped her face, asking, "Santa, why are you spitting on me?" Doug explained that it wasn't spit, it was simply frost coming off his beard.
So when the holiday crunch and the sentimental sugar shock of the season frostbite your jingle bells, head straight for The SantaLand Diaries and a little tummy tickling from Culig and crew. It just may end up being your favorite gift.