Theater

Gary Culig says so long to The SantaLand Diaries

Gary Culig has been playing the reluctant Macy's elf, Crumpet, in The SantaLand Diaries at the Bug for the last decade; there are people in this town who have faithfully attended every single year. But Culig is now living in New York and has found it more and more difficult to get back to Denver — so he decided that the tradition would finally end after this season. "I wanted to know what was the last year," he explained, "to be able to savor everything and find a proper way to say goodbye." And he has: SantaLand is playing to packed houses, and Culig's giving Crumpet everything he's got.

The SantaLand Diaries is adapted from David Sedaris's account of his time working in the Christmas department at Macy's. It's full of drolly ironic observations, as Sedaris-Crumpet describes the idiocies of the hiring process and the idiosyncrasies of the various Santas. We learn about the elf trainer who railed at the female elves for not wearing underwear because she was sick of scrubbing menstrual blood out of the crotches of their costumes. We encounter foolish elves; elves who were once prosperous professionals (a little shiver here, as we contemplate the current economic climate); enthusiastic elves; an artist elf who glues hair onto radios; and Snowball, the elf who comes on to every male in the place. ("Snowball is playing a dangerous game," intones Crumpet. "It's one thing to get a child fired up, but you really don't want to be working under a jilted Santa.") Lost and confused Europeans come into the store, and on one occasion a drove of retarded people (this is not a PC script); Crumpet realizes he can no longer tell the latter from the regular shoppers.

As Christmas comes closer, things get more and more frantic, and many parents lose their cool completely. They insist that their wailing offspring smile for photographs. They make stupid jokes, one man asking Santa for a big-breasted woman in front of his children while his small-breasted wife stares at the floor. A mother encourages her infant to pee on one of Macy's fake snowbanks. A black woman asks for a black Santa and then, having been led to one, insists he's not black enough; her white counterpart whispers to Crumpet that she wants a Santa "like us." There are some acute observations amid all the hilarity, along with an undercurrent of sadness — or at least a sober, irritated weariness. We can see the fatigue and worry that for many people are only exacerbated by the forced cheer and ubiquitous sentimentality of the season.

There's nothing cool or postmodern about Culig, and he makes the main character warmer and more appealing than I suspect Sedaris intended him to be. His Crumpet is elfin, but he's also smart and ironic. By now, Culig has this whole SantaLand thing down, and his timing is perfect. When he does a Billie Holiday-style version of "Away in a Manger," he blows the audience away. And when he describes an unexpected moment of transcendence at the end, it's genuinely touching. Buoyed by Donna Morrison's uninhibited direction — which includes the famed Santa strip — and Alex Weimer's cheery, light-festooned set design, the show is irresistibly festive, but it's the kind of festive that doesn't require you to check your brains at the door, and it adds a little ginger and spice to the all-pervasive Christmas sugar.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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