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Santaland Diaries and Season's Greetings
Desert Rose Playhouse

Also see Lynn's review of Traitors

Santaland Diaries and Season's Greetings
Kenneth Bennington
Eighteen years ago, morning commuters were treated to a different kind of holiday cheer on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. A relatively unknown writer named David Sedaris read his "Santaland Diaries" over the airwaves and carved out a niche for himself in the world of holiday marketing: snark.

Since, the work of David Sedaris has been broadcast repeatedly on NPR while six of his eight novels have spent time on The New York Times Best Seller List. His personal narratives infused with trademark sardonic wit make him a wickedly funny writer and highly entertaining speaker. Currently on a worldwide tour, Sedaris will stop by Popejoy Hall on April 21, 2011. In preparation for Sedaris' visit and the holiday season, The Desert Rose Playhouse is currently presenting two of Sedaris' holiday monologues: The Santaland Diaries and Season's Greetings.

A far cry from White Christmas, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, A Tuna Christmas and other holiday-themed shows brightening theaters around Albuquerque this season, these two monologues examine the darker side of Christmas. Regardless, the folks at The Desert Rose have created an environment that radiates holiday cheer. On opening night, every member of the audience received a candy cane, and hot chocolate topped the concessions menu. Scene designers Shiela Freed, Dagmar Garza, Rose Provan, Kenneth Bennington and Austin Overpeck have created a set that could easily be someone's living room. The intimate size of the theater coupled with tinsel and lights, thirteen ornamental nutcrackers and a delicately decorated tree certainly serve as a reminder that Christmas is on fast approach. Accordingly, the countdown to Christmas is as a literal narrative propellant in The Santaland Diaries. Before the show begins, it seems that the artistic team at The Desert Rose is encouraging us to escape the frenzied pace of December with a night at the theater. While shopping stress is a feature of both monologues, the thoughtful set, sound and lighting design caused my row-mate to tap her feet along to "Jingle Bell Rock" during the pre-show music.

Kenneth Bennington opens the evening as David Sedaris in The Santaland Diaries. The monologue details Sedaris' own personal experiences working as an elf at Macy's during the holiday season. As Bennington tested the narrative in front of an audience for the first time, the dark humor permeating Sedaris' every word emerged. Those unfamiliar with Sedaris' work will be delighted by the plot, while faithful NPR listeners will be reminded of subtle inflections that are best appreciated heard. Sustaining one character for almost an hour is undoubtedly daunting, but Bennington's energy when assuming the voices of supplemental characters (specifically a motivational speaker) enables him to remain vibrant for the duration of his performance, despite some memorization issues.

After intermission, Rose Provan embodies the character of Mrs. Dunbar, a middle-aged wife and mother reading her annual holiday Season's Greetings newsletter to the audience. Also written by Sedaris, this text is fictional—though Provan is so well-cast that audiences will easily imagine her printing these pages from the family computer moments before entering the unchanged living room set. As she introduces the newest, unwelcome addition to her family, her tone remains controlled, informative and even festive—true to holiday-letter form. When her annual holiday greeting takes it's final unexpected turn, Provan urges recipients not to judge her negatively. After all, a middle-class, middle-aged white woman in a garish Christmas sweater seems harmless enough.

Because both of these first-person pieces were originally written for broadcast on radio, visual staging presents a complication. Bennington delivers his entire monologue behind the fourth-wall, never interacting with the audience. While Sedaris' words are unquestionably funny, it is difficult to create a relationship with Bennington because he is delivering a monologue to no one in particular. Contrastingly, Provan's direct eye-contact facilitates pathos-based relationships with each member of the intimate audience. Although Provan literally reads Seasons Greetings from holly-bordered stationery, her obsessive need to maintain traditions and appearances creates a three-dimensional character who leaves us wondering about the subtext of all word-processed Christmas letters arriving this month.

Though the show is small in scale, The Desert Rose is big on ambition. Director Dagmar Garza has created a full-length production around the satiric prose of David Sedaris, and Rose Provan and Kenneth Bennington provide two contrasting performances that create a Christmas play for theatergoers who are less inclined to make merry.

The Santaland Diaries and Seasons Greetings by David Sedaris, directed by Dagmar Garza are presented by the Desert Rose Playhouse. The monologues run through December 19, 2010, Fridays and Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm. Tickets are $12 General Admission, $10 Students, Seniors and Albuquerque Theatre Guild members. For reservations call 505-881-0503. www.desertroseplayhouse.com.


Photo: Rose Provan

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area

-Michelle Hill



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