Clarence Brown’s ‘Santaland Diaries’ Reveals the All-Too-Real Spirit of the Season

In Performing Arts by Alan Sherrodleave a COMMENT

It is said that no two snowflakes are alike. It can also be said that no two people can ever agree on what the December holiday season really is. All can probably agree, though, that it is a bizarre conglomeration of secular, religious, pagan, commercial, and celebratory traditions, sounds, and images. As example, on the University of Tennessee campus, two vastly different expressions of Christmastime currently exist within feet of each other—a stage adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Clarence Brown Theatre and David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries at the Carousel Theatre. While we may warm ourselves around the satisfying fire of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation at CBT, Sedaris’ satirical comic account of a job as a Macy’s SantaLand elf is more like a sharp icicle ready to fall, cutting open the reality of the season most of us know all too well.

The Santaland Diaries began life as a semi-autobiographical essay that Sedaris read on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992 and became something of an instant classic. In 1996, it was adapted as a one-act play by Joe Mantello; it has been a popular seasonal item for theater companies ever since. The one-actor piece is the story of Sedaris’ own unemployment crisis, which drove him to apply for a job as an elf at the SantaLand in Macy’s flagship store in New York City.

This hugely entertaining production, directed by Jeff Stanley, features well-known CBT artist-in-residence David Brian Alley as “Crumpet” the elf. Physical comedy and an energetic delivery seem to flow in Alley’s bloodstream—he is a master at delivering a punch line with a visible punctuation mark. Believe it or not, Stanley and Alley have avoided way-over-the-top bawdy excess, which is surely an option. Instead, they have given the work the necessary arc and energetic pace that clearly conveys how such a job begins neatly, even calmly, then becomes more and more tattered, more and more hectic, more and more satirically revealing as the anxiety builds toward Christmas Eve. There is a subtlety to be had in this acting dynamic, and one must certainly work hard to avoid rushing the sardonic storytelling to get to the punch line.

Sedaris skillfully lays out the job descriptions and philosophy of SantaLand workers, including the multiple Santas and the various elfin jobs, via anecdotes and observations: wrangling bratty children for photos, controlling the entrances and exits, and feeding Santa the necessary information on bewildered children. Alley’s brilliance as a comic artist was fully employed in the portrayal of the various workers and SantaLand visitors, among them the parents intent on crafting their vision of a perfect Christmas for their less-than-willing kids. Admittedly, a bit painful was the description of those parents who obliquely request a certain kind of Santa. Alley’s vivid picture of the various weary Santas, perhaps a little unbalanced by the end, struck home, as did the descriptions of the elves whose real extracurricular motivations begin to show a little too clearly.

With sets and costumes by Stephen Brown, the Carousel Theatre itself has been transformed from a theater-in-the-round to a modified thrust arrangement, which permits the staging to be presentational and allows a very cool and simple transition from a New York apartment set to the colorful and cloying sweetness of SantaLand. Alley’s own costume switch—to his elfin attire of candy-cane tights, pumpkin-shaped skirt, and ice-cream-cone-like hat­—is accomplished as part of the humorous action. Infusing that action throughout was a marvelous sonic environment of seasonally suggestive and appropriately subtle music and effects created by designer Mike Ponder.

Sedaris has held the mirror of satire and comedy up for us to see what we have done to our Christmas season in the name of unrelenting commerce. And we laugh, deservedly—yet deep down, we know we are truly laughing at ourselves.

Alan Sherrod
Classical music critic |

Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.

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