Going to the Bug Theatre for The Santaland Diaries is like dropping in on a high-spirited Christmas party. People in Santa hats scurry about; every surface is crammed with toys and decorations. Pretty soon you find yourself singing along to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" while fellow guests mime the various gifts -- linking circled arms for the five golden rings, leaping in place, pretending to drum or making strange spastic bobbing gestures to represent a partridge in a pear tree. By the time the show starts -- with a huge plastic Santa being deflated and stuffed into a box -- it really doesn't matter that you don't know anyone else at the party. (In fact, a number of audience members do seem to know each other, which suggests either that the Bug has a loyal following or that a lot of people who saw The Santaland Diaries before have returned to view it again. Probably both.)
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Author David Sedaris first aired this material on NPR in 1992. It describes his experiences as a would-be actor in New York who took a seasonal job playing an elf at Macy's department store. It's the usual low-paying, high-stress temp job, complicated by a fuzzy green costume and bobbled cap. And it also gives Sedaris a chance to observe some of the less-festive manifestations of the Christmas spirit. The piece was adapted for the theater in 1996 by Joe Mantello, and has since become a holiday favorite at theaters all over the country.
At the Bug, Gary Culig plays Sedaris with a great deal of energy and charm. It did occur to me to wonder how the material would work if he chose to underplay parts of it, however, because there were a few moments when his energy seemed forced. Though The Santaland Diaries is usually staged as a straight monologue, Culig is supported by Alex Weimer and McPherson Horle, who play a variety of nonspeaking roles. Horle is notable as Vixen, the salacious reindeer; Weimer, dressed as Santa Claus, does a bring-down-the-house-funny striptease routine.
The Santaland Diaries
Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street
Through December 29, 303-477-9984
The play is touted as a bracing alternative to Christmas cliches and the overwhelming and often false good cheer of the season. Sedaris describes the difficulties of keeping up the elfin facade on the job, his strange assortment of fellow elves -- among them an artist who covers found objects with human hair -- and the eccentricities of the various Santas. In particular, he brings the customers to life -- and a highly unflattering life it is. People mill around stupidly and ask inane questions. Some offer gratuitous insults. A woman encourages her toddler to pee on Macy's artificial snowbank. A loud man from New Jersey asks Santa to give him a large-breasted woman, in front of his small-breasted wife. Worst of all, harried parents take out their frustrations on their kids, pressuring terrified two-year-olds to sit on Santa's lap, screaming at their weeping offspring to "stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about."
The Santaland Diaries does break a few politically correct rules, but it's more of a prolonged kvetch than a true shocker. It is very funny though, and the humor's enhanced by the Bug production. Alex Weimer's set and props are full of welcoming color and shine, and director Matthew Howard has created a rollicking overall style that makes this the perfect Christmas fare. Is that a paradox?