Regional Reviews: San Francisco
David Sedaris's The Santaland Diaries
Also see Richard's reviews of The Fourth Wall
A new theatre company called SteinBeck is currently presenting a brilliant aura of Christmas as seen through the eyes of a thirty-three year old elf working Santaland at Macy's Department Store in New York. David Sedaris's satirical The Santaland Diaries is wonderfully told by one of San Francisco's most talented comic actors, John Michael Beck.
David Sedaris's hilarious story was adapted and directed by Joe Mantello for the Atlantic Theatre in 1996. New York Newsday called it "a sardonic, merrily subversive tale just the antidote to bright eyed joy before too many shopping days have passed. Worth more than a photo album full of Santas". Evan Gore was the original elf.
The Santaland Diaries has played many cities since that date and it has become popular during this season of the year since it gives an insightful account of life working as a Santaland elf at Macy's. The text is full of luscious observations that boarder on the absurd. Our hero (John Michael Beck) tells how he arrives in New York hoping to work in the theatre. He applies for a job as an elf in Macy's mammoth Santaland, and must endure the interviewing process which borders on the ridiculous. He is accepted as part of the 50 plus team of Santa's helpers and is assigned the name "Crumpet."
Crumpet changes into his red and white striped tights, red turtleneck sweater and green smock and starts to work. He meets all kinds of elves (many of whom are out of work dancers). Our narrator profiles all of the Santas since they work in shifts. He talks about the different visitors Santa receives, and some are real characters, to say the least.
Christmas shopping days spiral downward into an ever growing fury. Parents can't control the little ones as they rush to see the big guy with the white beard before that fateful day. One little kid throws a temper tantrum and the mother can't control him. She asks Crumpet for help and by this time our friend has had it. He tells the kid that if he is going to continue to be bad, he is in for a big shock. "Santa no longer traffics in coal in your stocking; instead, he comes to your house and steals things."
The Santaland Diaries requires a talented storyteller to make it work - a good actor who can subtly hold the audience in his hands. He must not be over campy but give out the right amount of emotion to handle the clever text of David Sedaris. The show needs a measured pacing to make the words come alive. John Michael Beck is that actor, and he succeeds in this 80 minute solo piece. He is marvelous in the role.
Director Jeffrey Hartgraves has added a brilliant piece of theatre to his satire: puppeteer Alex Pearistein, who uses various puppets to highlight certain aspects of the soliloquy. The set design by Ace Beckstein in this small bandbox theater is full of Christmas lights and it gets you into a holiday mood.
The Santaland Diaries plays through December 21 at the Shelton Theatre, 533 Sutter Street at Powell, San Francisco. Reservations can be obtained by calling 415-846-3424.