Put a cap on the season with the Zach Theater's delightful and sardonic take onDavid Sedaris' Santaland Diaries
Christmas may have come and gone, but The Santaland Diaries, complied and directed by Zach Theater producing artsitic director Dave Steakley, is still with us through Jan. 8. An Austin tradition for more than a decade, this Zach Theater season extra is a lot more than just Sedaris’ irreverent look at life as a Macy’s Elf.
For those of you not familiar with the ubiquitous show, The Santaland Diaries was originally a humorous autobiographical essay published by David Sedaris in the 90s, exploring his experience working as Crumpet the elf in Macy’s Santaland one Christmas season. The essay was read by Sedaris on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition before it was published, bringing the author into the national spotlight; the story was later adapted into a one man show. The show has gone on to become a holiday staple at regional theaters across the country.
John Aielli first began playing the Sedaris reading of the essay on his Eklektikos program in the seasons after it aired, and it was very popular with the Austin listeners. When the stage adaptation came out, the Zach Theater began producing the show with Austin actor Martin Burke and it has been running strong ever since.
Calling this show at the Zach The Santaland Diaries, however, doesn’t really convey the full scope of the production. The entire first act, in fact, has nothing to do with Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries, and almost nothing to do with Sedaris. Despite the slight misdirection of the name, however, the entire show is wonderfully done, stays true to the darkly humorous but human nature of Sedaris' work, and is simply a delight.
Act One primarily features the work of actress Meredith McCall in a lounge style review of off centered love songs and not likely to be heard at the local department store holiday numbers. She performs each number with solid gusto and creates vibrant little vignettes out of these pretty outrageous, yet all too real, scenarios. She also performs a monologue of family dysfunction at the holidays from the female perspective with strength, honesty and ease. The monologue, an autobiographical piece by Sarah Vowell, is a good match for the style of Sedaris’ work. The act is rounded out by Martin Burke’s telling of the Sedaris’ Dinah, another autobiographical essay about the adventures of a teenage Sedaris and his older sister Amy one holiday season, and his wonderfully lusty performance of the completely un-holiday related song Taylor the Latte Boy.
In Act Two we launch into The Santaland Diaries proper. Martin leads the storytelling, supported by Meredith, and their partnership is delightful to watch. It is clear that Martin knows this work and in this production he is free and easy. He improvises with the audience and fellow cast members and brings great exuberance to his performance. He sometimes throws himself off when he throws himself so deeply into the moment, but there is never a lack of grace or joy. The end of the story is simply, stunningly honest and perfectly performed.
The space of the Whisenut Theater is ideal for the show. There is a sense of intimacy and even comradely created and it is easy to get caught up in the story and enjoy the wild ride. The set seems a clutter of tacky Christmas decorations, befitting a mall Christmas display, and yet it can magically come to life, aglow with memories of the wonder of childhood. The pianist, Jason Connor, is practically a part of the set and yet adds a perfect pitch to the performance. He plays a bit of a straight man to both Meredith and Martin’s quirkiness.
Although Christmas has come and gone this year, and it may seem strange to bundle yourself up and head out to this ostensibly holiday show, I urge you to take the leap. This show is a smart and funny look at us crazy humans that doesn’t really need a season to feel just right.
The show plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with Sunday matinees from now until Jan. 8th.