Matt Zambrano on playing David Sedaris in The SantaLand Diaries
Matt Zambrano as Crumpet, with Mayor Michael Hancock.
We all love Christmas. And we all hate Christmas. For the side of us that bitterly embraces the latter, David Sedaris's The SantaLand Diaries essay is the ideal method for steeping in your own Scroogeness. Chronicling the true story of Sedaris's move to New York, where he becomes depressed and sadistic while working at Macy's SantaLand during the Christmas season, this tale of working-class cynicism has struck a chord with beleaguered holiday shoppers, who have insisted on hearing it year after year on NPR for the last two decades.
Naturally, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company wanted to bring this experience of merriment gone wrong to the stage, casting local favorite Matt Zambrano as not only Crumpet the elf (Sedaris), but in every role in the production. We caught up with Zambrano as he prepares for the role of Santa's angriest elf to discuss the Sedaris legacy, how the holidays have gotten worse since the SantaLand premiere, and why you don't have to hate Christmas to love this play.
Westword: The SantaLand Diaries strike such a cynical chord against Christmas consumerism, and yet people can't get enough of it on the holidays. Do you think Sedaris tapped into something that everyone was thinking but not saying about Christmas?
Matt Zambrano: Yes. I think what makes Sedaris such a fantastic writer and satirist is his ability to tap into the dark underbelly of any surface situation. We all innately know that the Coca-Colazation of Christmas has grown out of control, and that sometimes gathering for the holidays can really be a big pain in the ass. But in the "true holiday spirit" we put on a good face and an ugly sweater and we drink the eggnog and smile. Sedaris really gets underneath that all and asks: "Why?"
The story takes place in 1992, before social media and camera phones. Do you think Sedaris's story of societal vanity stands up today?
Absolutely. In fact, if anything, it's only gotten worse. Also, when the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company has staged it over the last few years, we have updated many of the references to toys or technology in the play to modern-day things the audience can recognize.
As an actor, do you identify with Sedaris's biography as a working-class artist trying to earn a living without losing self-respect?
You know, it's funny that my first job was as a puppeteer/Deputy Dog at Casa Bonita here in Denver. Since that time I have held a number of ridiculous jobs, including being cast as a giant can of cranberry sauce for a Thanksgiving TV ad. And when I found out last year that I would be doing SantaLand, it was as I was moving to New York for the first time. It really gave me the opportunity to view the city through the eyes of the character in the show, who also moves to the big city for the first time to "make it" and finds that things aren't quite as easy as the movies make it out to be.
I understand you're the only performer in SantaLand. How do you play out the scenes with multiple people engaging in dialogue?
We lost track of just how many characters there are in the show, but it's somewhere over two dozen. A bunch of Santas, a bunch of elves, and let us not forget all the terrible customers. I recently was teaching a slam poetry workshop with a group of teens when one of them said she really liked "pop acting," where you pop in and out of different characters. I really liked that description as a way of explaining how we do the material. In the script, it's written as one long monologue, and so we treat it that way, with character interjections throughout.
If someone is the biggest fan of Christmas, would coming to see this production put a fly in your cranberry sauce?
I actually think if you're a fan of Christmas you'll appreciate the show even more. It's not the holiday that's the problem: Ot's the people who have to make the holiday hell for everyone around them. At the heart of this play, is a cynical man who is trying to cope with the candy-cane chaos around him, and despite the crying babies, racist parents, entitled "Santas" and overall demoralizing and humiliating experience of being an elf, he finds hope and a faint glimmer of Christmas magic.
I think if you want a holiday show that's fun for the whole family, something that will reaffirm your belief in Christmas miracles, go see A Christmas Carol. If you want to feel warm and fuzzy and hopeful for the future, then maybe you should just make some hot chocolate and watch It's a Wonderful Life. But if you want to have a few drinks, a few laughs, maybe be offended and definitely be reminded why this time of year can be a big pain in your elf-butt, then come see SantaLand.
Matt Zambrano stars in The SantaLand Diaries Friday, November 29 through December 24 at the Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Tickets start at $25; for more information, visit denvercenter.org.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.