Theatre Review: “The Santaland Diaries” with Scot Greenwell

You will never catch me out shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, but given a chance to see live theatre on Thanksgiving Day, I’m there!

I drove south from Indianapolis to Bloomington, Indiana to share Thanksgiving dinner with some of my family and friends on Thursday, November 25 (Thanksgiving 2010.)  After dinner, four of us drove to the Waldron Auditorium in Bloomington to see the professional Cardinal Stage Company’s production of “The Santaland Diaries,” written by David Sedaris and adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello.  It was directed by Cardinal’s artistic director, Randy White.

It is a one-man show that stars one of my favorite Indianapolis-based actors, Scot Greenwell, as “Crumpet.” 

According to the information that I received from Cardinal’s marketing assistant, Allison Parman, the show only ran three nights in Bloomington, but it will be here in Indy at the Indy Fringe Theatre for twelve performances, including Saturday matinees,  between Thursday, December 2 and Sunday, December 12, 2010.

For one reason or another, I didn’t get my thoughts written up before the show came here to Indy.  This past Saturday afternoon, December 4, I was trying to write my review but I kept feeling curious about what the show was like in the smaller, Indy Fringe Theatre space. 

Finally I said to myself, “You know what, Hopie?  If you were a professional journalist being paid to write theatre reviews for mainstream media, you would not be allowed to write a review based on two performances.  Shoot, you would have been fired for missing your deadline and going over arbitrary word limits already anyway, let alone for seeing a show twice.  But you are not a professional freelance journalist, you are a hobby blogger, and as long as you do not jeopardize your livelihood, your health, or your loved ones, you can do whatever you want!”

So I drove through the snow to the Indy Fringe Theatre to see this show again before writing about it.

What the Show Is About

A cynical young man trying unsuccessfully to make his living as a writer in New York City takes a temporary job as a Christmas elf for Macy’s Department Store to earn some money.  His observations of “elf culture” and the humanity that streams through Macy’s Santaland during his stint as “Crumpet” are biting and funny.

I had never heard or read anything by David Sedaris before seeing this show, but I have since learned that David Sedaris’ big break as a writer came when he read the original “Santaland Diaries” essay on National Public Radio in 1992.  It is based on his own experiences.

Artistic Considerations

Any live theatre piece only truly gels when it is performed in front of a live audience, but this is especially true of solo pieces since there are no other actors to play off of.  I don’t think it is possible to truly polish a solo piece without performing it in front of live audiences.  Even for a performance artist who is working with a director, there is just no substitute for “flight time” with random audience members.

When I first saw this show, in Bloomington, it was enjoyable enough, but the actor, Scot Greenwell, had not performed it enough yet with audiences.  He had learned it, and he had mined it, but he hadn’t lived it much yet. 

I was fascinated by the challenges this particular solo piece must have presented, too: Scot (or whoever) is sort of playing David Sedaris, but sort of not.  The guy in the story is based on David’s experiences but he never calls himself “David.”  However, the people with me had all heard David Sedaris himself read this piece in a podcast, and that is what they were comparing Scot’s performance to.  They enjoyed it, but they also felt disappointed.

So…I imagine the best performances of this role are by actors that do not try to imitate David Sedaris but instead “make it their own,” to borrow a phrase from storytellers, so that no one cares that it is not David Sedaris up there on stage.  When I saw this show in Bloomington, Scot hadn’t made it his own yet.

However, when I saw it this past weekend, here in Indy, he had made it his own.  I.e., he had discovered more of the poignant bits hidden amongst the long-suffering bits.  He had discovered more about the ups and downs and rhythms of the piece and conveyed them more naturally.  He had also discovered more of the funny visuals that make this live theatre piece richer than just hearing a podcast of the author reading aloud the essay himself.  He had a more relaxed rapport with his audience yet hadn’t given up his control over the part.

Now it feels as if it Scot is dryly sharing a funny, true story about himself.  It is hilarious and moving and nuanced.

**********

As I mentioned earlier, I was curious about how the several large Santaland set pieces, designed by Sarah Sandberg, would transfer to the very tiny Indy Fringe Theatre space.  I was surprised and delighted to see that the set pieces work well in both places.  

In the large stage area at the Waldron, each set piece had lots of space around it, which gave an expansive, almost symbolic but definitely “larger than life” feel to Santaland.  Scot skipped around a lot more in that space, and the spaciousness fit the character’s making fun of the over-the-top-ness of the job.

In the Indy Fringe space the set pieces “read” very differently.  They overlap each other on the tiny stage, giving Santaland an overstimulating, claustrophobic feel, but that fits the story, too, since hundreds of people visit Santa each day and everyone is stressed out.

**********

Scott B. Jones (satyrsight.com) designed the costumes.  Scot the actor starts out wearing jeans and a sports jersey – just a regular guy.  But then he puts on his elf uniform and the humiliation begins.  The contrast between the two is very effective, and it is a hoot to a) watch Scot pull on his striped tights and b) listen to him jingle faintly for the rest of the show.

John Allerheiligen’s nimble lighting design and production manager Mike Price’s cheery-funny sound design both further enhance the theatricality of the piece, adding layers that a mere podcast or staged reading would not have.  Erin Hunot is the stage manager.

Audience and Appeal Factors

This humorous show is for adults and teens only, and only those who won’t be offended by the “f” word and other “mature,” politically incorrect content.

It is for anyone that has ever worked retail during the holiday season, or been a parent, or wanted to believe in Santa Clause in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

It is also for all Scot Greenwell fans.  This is different from any other role I’ve seen him play, but (and I hope he won’t be offended by my saying this) in many ways it seems a role that he was born to play.

Box Office

Cardinal Stage Company’s production of “The Santaland Diaries” continues at the Indy Fringe Theatre through Sunday, December 12, 2010, with performances on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  Please visit www.indyfringe.org for more info.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/IndyTheatre

(Photos accompanying this post are of Scot Greenwell and were taken by Melinda Seader.)

2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The Santaland Diaries” with Scot Greenwell”

  1. Thanks for your very thorough review. Can’t wait to see the show. Hopefully I’ll be going this weekend – either Saturday or Sunday – with a few friends. Glad to be catching it midway through the run.

Leave a Reply