REVIEW: The Santaland Diaries (Theater Wit)

  
  

Spend a bawdy evening with Santa’s fave martini-swilling elf

   
   

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Theater Wit presents
   
The Santaland Diaries
   
Written by David Sedaris
Adapted by
Joe Mantello
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A few days after Black Friday—and are you sick of it yet?  Has Christmas decor begun to look blindingly tacky to you?  Does the constant replay of Christmas tunes already fill you with bored revulsion?  You may need a retreat to an ashram where the saffron-robed monks have never heard of Christmas. 

Or you could try The Santaland Diaries, now onstage at Theater Wit, directed by Jeremy Wechsler.  A new holiday classic—although new is really stretching it since David Sedaris first regaled NPR audiences with his elfin misadventures in 1992.  Still, this ironic, melancholy 90’s swipe at America’s most oversold holiday has held up well, if for no other reason than because we, as a country, consistently make the same old mistakes about Christmas that we have ever made before.

Urinal - potrait“I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm that Santa requires,” quips Mitchell Fain.  His performance is definitely sharper, more caustic than Sedaris’s, who delivers his tale with soft, wry, and distanced resignation to the absurdities of his elf-training at Macy’s for Christmas.  Indeed, in a startling departure from Sedaris’s original work, the actor makes a stab at comparing Santa with Satan.  But who’s to say that’s wrong? 

In it’s own light, sardonic way, The Santaland Diaries is a parade of Christmas horrors, another example of man’s inhumanity to man, the banality of marketing manipulation wrapped in candy-striped tights and a green velvet coat.  Macy’s Santaland, constructed as the happiest place on earth at the most joyous time of year, gets exposed at its worst in this humorous yet Bruegelian portrait of communal venality and desperation. 

Being an elf in the service of Macy’s exposes one to a thousand humiliations and we can be grateful to Fain’s impeccable comic timing that these get rattled off with a full range, from self-deprecation to sly satire to burlesque to savage and direct improv with the audience.  But elfin humiliations in the name of commercialism are not the worst of Satanland Santaland.  There are much worse:  parents who slap their children because they won’t stop crying and get on Santa’s lap, parents who request a “traditional” Santa—by that they mean a Caucasian one, parents who manipulate their children to promote their own political views and parents who tell their children it’s okay to pee in the artificial snow.  Even martinis cannot allay the madness that only escalates in the countdown toward Christmas day.

IMG_4786_JPGFor this reason the act’s one last magical moment doesn’t quite sell.  Out of a million wonderfully weird and self-absorbed Santas, one shows up to treat the children as they should be treated and teach us all a Christmas lesson.  It’s the one sentimental false note of Joe Mantello’s adaptation.  While it might send the crowd out of the theater with a smile, it simply cannot reconcile all atrocities committed from attempting to manufacture warm and fuzzy holiday feelings to promote higher retail sales.

Real Christmas spirit can’t be bought or sold.  Real magical childhood moments are fleeting and unpredictable.  Real development as a human being means accepting life’s flaws and imperfections, not inhumanely overreaching to grasp at meaningless once-in-a-lifetime perfection.  If nothing else, The Santaland Diaries can help you laugh off the Christmas madness, even if that madness has become embedded in our yearly traditions.            

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   
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About Face announces 2010-2011 Season, future plans

Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar Announces 15th Season

 

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Including Three World Premieres, New Artistic Associates, and XYZ Festival

Celebrating the 15th anniversary of About Face Theatre, it looks like Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar and new Executive Director Jason Held have upped the ante for the start of their next 15 years.  Included in the upcoming season is Float by Patricia Kane, Pony by Sally Oswald and The Homosexuals by Phillip Dawkins, are their second annual XYZ Festival of New Works

 

 

 

 

About Face is excited to roll out our 15th anniversary with a season that examines individuals at the precipice of change,” says Bonnie Metzgar. “As our organization and society at large both make pivotal choices, this season looks at the risks and exhilarating possibilities available to us in periods of transformation.

 

October 2010

XYZ Festival

The XYZ Festival will introduce Chicago audiences to the most innovative LGBTQA artists and artworks at all stages of development. Presented over the month of October, projects will include a workshop production of TINY ROOMS by Carson Kreitzer, and new works from AFT About Face Artistic Associates Tanya Saracho and Patrick Andrews, as well as a performance lounge series featuring AFT Artistic Associate Dan Stermer’s performance art/dance trio Double DJ, curated by AFT Marketing Director Jane Beachy. From the hundreds of scripts received for the XYZ Readings Series, four new plays by acclaimed emerging playwrights round out the festival.

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November 11 – December 12

Float

FLOAT, a new play written by About Face Theatre (AFT) Artistic Associate Patricia Kane and directed by 500 Clown founder Leslie Danzig with dramaturgy by Jessica Thebus. The all-female cast includes Wendy Robie, Adrianne Cury, Peggy Roeder, Rengin Altay and AFT Artistic Associate Amy Matheny. FLOAT will run from November 11 – December 12 at Theater Wit (1229 West Belmont).

 

April-May 2011 

Pony

 

In April/May, About Face Theatre will present the world premiere of PONY by Sally Oswald, a play inspired by Georg Büchner, at the Chopin Theatre. Directed by Bonnie Metzgar, PONY will be featured as part of The Woyzeck Project, a city-wide festival hosted by About Face Theatre, The Hypocrites, and Collaboraction in which artists around the city will produce hybrid works inspired by the classic anti-war play. Set near the location of the famous murder scene in Woyzeck, PONY is a tale of shifting gender roles and the dangers of obsessive love.

 

June/July 2011

The Homosexuals

About Face Theatre will conclude its season in June/July with The Homosexuals by Chicago playwright Phillip Dawkins, starring Patrick Andrews at Victory Gardens Studio. The Homosexuals presents the interwoven lives, friendships, and relationships among six homosexual men over six years. Set at present time in a Midwestern city, Dawkins’ comedic and heartbreaking work examines the fears, doubts, and hope among the gay community in a 21st century perspective on the queer classic, The Boys in the Band.

About Face Theatre’s 15th Anniversary Season exemplifies how far the LGBTQ community has come from being defined by one issue to being seen as complex. In our 15 years, AFT has given voice to that changing dialogue around issues facing the queer community. As we move forward, we understand the need to bring the conversation around sexuality and gender to all people,” says Executive Director Jason Held.

 

 

 

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2009 Chicago Christmas Theater

Christmas Show Round-Up

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By Barry Eitel

With all those holiday shows out in Chicago right now, it’s hard to decide what to see on top of all the shopping and avoiding extended family. And there is something for everyone out there, from Dickensian classics to ones celebrating the seedier side of December. This season has seen a fairly controversial Christmas on the Chicago theatre scene. For one, there is the on-going feud between American Theatre Company and American Blues Theatre, both of which are simultaneously visiting the village of Bedford Falls with “radio” productions of It’s a Wonderful Life. Just a bit awkward. And then there is the whole Civic Opera Christmas Carol fiasco, where producer/ex-convict Kevin Von Feldt promised a cavalcade of stars and then the whole project somehow fell through. Not to worry, though. There is plenty of goodwill towards man out there to keep you entertained until January.

Luckily for you, the elves at Chicago Theatre Blog have put together a Holiday Theatre Guide to find the perfect show for you. So bust out the coffee and pumpkin pie, and enjoy our sleigh ride through the holiday theatre season.

IF YOU’RE IN TO LONG-STANDING TRADITIONS

Go see the Goodman’s Christmas Carol (★★★½). The show has 32 years behind it and the list of actors who have played past Scrooges reads like a Hall of Fame for Chicago actors. This year’s version has a nice mix of the time-honored and the refreshing. Larry Yando does a remarkable job as Scrooge, bringing out new facets of the usually stiff character. Most of the production in terms of design has not changed over the years, but it still gets results emotionally (and financially). Even without overhauling the dusty script or design, Bill Brown’s strikingly honest production can melt even the most cynical Scrooges in the audience (our review here).

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IF YOU DON’T MIND TRAVELING TO INDIANA

Then The Christmas Schooner at Theatre at the Center (★★★★) is the show for you. Once usual fare at the now-deceased Bailiwick Arts Center, the show has moved on to its new home in Munster, Indiana. The Theatre at the Center production revels in furthering the orchestrations and design. Called the “most Midwestern” of the Christmas shows out there, the musical tells the tale of 19th Century German immigrants, Christmas trees, and a ship carrying very important holiday cargo. With the vast amount of Equity actors and Christmas cheer, The Christmas Schooner is worth the trip (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE A FAN OF ROCK OPERAS

You should see the musical stylings in The Snow Queen  (★★★), the annual Christmas show at Victory Gardens. Adapted by Frank Galati from a Hans Christian Anderson story, this little musical tells the story of a girl battling an evil snow queen in order to rescue her friend. There’s puppets, live music, and plenty of reindeer. If you like your Christmas carols with a little more guitar and a little less pipe organ, you should head on down to Victory Gardens to catch this gem (our review here).

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IF YOU LOVE SPECTACLE

Then check out Redmoon’s Winter Pageant (★★½). The famously choreography-and-spectacle-oriented company’s foray into holiday shows is a wonder to behold. The show boasts a breakneck pace and very little dialogue, so it is sure to delight the entire family. With their focus on magical theatrics, Redmoon have created a show that celebrates what we love about winter (our review here).

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IF YOU HATE CHRISTMAS SHOWS

You should take a look at A Red Orchid Theatre’s A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant (★★★).  Or take a look at the production going on at Next Theatre (★★½) in Evanston. Either way, you’ll enjoy these children acting out the history and theory of Scientology, as dictated by L. Ron Hubbard. And most likely, you’ll be a little frightened. Your inner cynic, however, will love the fact that children are pulling off this juicy satire about one of the world’s most lucrative religions (our reviews here and here).

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SHOW UNDER 90 MINUTES

Miracle on 34th Street (★★★½) presented by Porchlight Music Theatre could be the show for you. Taking place at the Theatre Building Chicago, this adaptation is not really a straight musical besides a select number of Christmas carols. Through condensing the most memorable section of the classic 1947 film, director L. Walter Stearns comes in at a kid-friendly 80 minutes. Even with this abridged adaptation, you’ll be reminded why you fell in love with the story in the first place (our review here).

IF YOU’RE JEWISH

There’s always the snarky Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition, the one-woman show at the Royal George featuring the sarcastic Jackie Hoffman. She plays the Grandmama in The Addams Family  (review★★★)  and rants in this show on Mondays, her off-nights. Hoffman whines about children, her current role at the Oriental, and, especially, the holidays, Chanukah or otherwise. It all makes for a pretty cathartic Monday night.

IF YOU WANT TO TAKE A TRIP TO BEDFORD FALLS

Than two routes are available to you. You could either see American Theatre Company’s It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (★★★) or American Blues Theatre (comprised of many former ATC ensemble members) present It’s A Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!  Even though one does have an exclamation point in the title, both are well-done and feature decent performances and live radio sound effects. Yet both have their subtle differences, ABT relying more heavily on music and the charm of the Biograph Theatre, while ATC sticks a bit closer to the time period. Both stage/radio adaptations capture the charm and sentimentality of Frank Capra’s original film (our review here).

IF YOU’VE HAD A CRAPPY SEASONAL JOB

Than you’ll identify with Mitchell Fain, who stars in Theater Wit’s one-man show The Santaland Diaries (★★★). A stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ delightfully subversive essay of the same name, the production follows the adventure of Fain as he works at Macy’s as the elf Crumpet. This is not a straight reading of Sedaris’ work. Fain brings his own personality to the play and inserts his own stories, making this quite a different experience than just reading the essay, like all good stage adaptations (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE NOSTLAGIC FOR STOP-MOTION ANIMATION

You might want to take a look at Annoyance Theatre’s live action version of Rankin /Bass’ 1964 television special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (★★★½). Surprisingly, Annoyance does a faithful translation for the stage, considering they’re known for their destruction of anything sentimental (the show is running alongside Cockette’s: A Christmas Spectacular). With the music and characters of the beloved original, this Rudolph is meant to enchant theatergoers from 1 to 92 (our review here).

Although there are only a few days before Santa comes around, there are still plenty of options offered by the bounteous Chicago theatre scene. Don’t be fooled into thinking this guide presents everything out there, either. For some other offerings, check the review listing on the side.

REVIEW: Theater Wit’s “SantaLand Diaries”

Theater Wit presents:

The Santaland Diaries

by David Sedaris
adapted by
Joe Mantello
directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
thru January 2nd (ticket info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

elf2 Who doesn’t love holiday traditions? Especially if one of your traditions is listening to David Sedaris’ reading of his radio essay “SantaLand Diaries.” When this piece first aired on NPR in 1992, it struck a nerve hard enough to propel Sedaris into a public radio superstar. It’s a true story about the underemployed writer living in New York taking a job as an Elf at Macy’s one Christmas season. Perhaps it’s the medium that makes it so personally appealing, but it’s also Sedaris’ writing, which is confessional, hilarious and honest.

For many lovers of regional theater there is another equally dear tradition: the one-man theatrical production of this piece, which I saw this weekend produced by Theater Wit. Adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins) in 1996, the one act monologue covers Sedaris’ bases but with broader strokes; making it both more theatrical and open enough for voices other than Sedaris’ to crawl into the role of the anonymous narrator.

In this production, our narrator introduces himself right away as Mitch. He’s Mitchell Fain actually, and this is his third year telling this story under the direction of Theater Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler. It’s an improvisational, audience interactive production, in which Fain breaks out of character repeatedly to share personal anecdotes and connects with audience members one on one.

Fain’s Crumpet (as the elf names himself) is different from Sedaris’. He’s boozier, more jaded and older. He’s been around long enough to bring a special kind of indignation to his role as an elf. He’s also Jewish, bringing a nice new layer of irony to the already super sardonic show. Mitchell Fain is a bold actor and brings so much of himself to the stage, that even the truest David Sedaris fans will allow themselves to be seduced by his performance. As he switches back and forth between Crumpet and Mitchell, the transitions can be somewhat jarring and at times even awkward at the top of the show. But once he gets going and the asides become hotter and freer flowing, Mitchell and Crumpet flow nicely and the cohesiveness makes for something that is entirely new, and not a retelling of an old holiday favorite. An appropriate presentation of a show that is at its core about the aggravating façade of holiday traditions.

Joey Wade has created an ironically generic set for Fain to play around in, which he does in a mostly compelling way. The crew gets into the fun, at one point someone pulled the lights on Fain during an (I’m guessing) improvised Judy Garland impression. The Theater Building, which hosts the show, has a full bar in the lobby and the audience is encouraged to drink (Crumpet the Elf goes through about a shakers worth of martini in the duration of the show). It’s a festive environment, perfect for anyone who is too jaded for Tiny Tim, but not so jaded that they can’t sit through a one man retelling of a 1992 radio essay. For audiences looking for something subversive enough to stomach but not so subversive that they have to think, this is a perfectly pleasant night at the theater.

 

Rating: ★★★