IF YOU GO
What: Adaptation of David Sedaris essay about life as a Macy's Santaland elf
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through Dec. 30
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: New Year's Eve performance at 8 p.m. Dec. 31
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
FORT MYERS — After four years, I may know "The Santaland Diaries" as well as anyone in Southwest Florida except for erstwhile Crumpet the Elf himself, Jason Parrish. So, I tell you, don't miss year four. And request seats on the West Wall.
I'll explain the seating arrangements later, but for now, let's meander through another year of that dark, demented place brought forth from the mind of humorist David Sedaris: Macy's Santaland. Come now, as we unwrap this glittering box of snark, tied with ribbons of laughter.
Sedaris read his essay about working as an elf at Macy's Herald Square in New York City on NPR in 1992. The piece was adapted for the stage as a one-man show by Joe Mantello. Florida Rep has offered the show, with Parrish in the lead role, each December since 2009. (Read the reviews: 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | Crumpet speaks)
"Santaland" hits - hard and fast - at crass consumerism, angry parents, uncouth behavior and snotty little brats. Holidays, with busy roads, crowded malls and way too many family members seems to bring out the worst in humanity; Sedaris catalogs it all with wit, verve, style and obvious glee. You'll never look at Christmas the same way again.
Yet, while the show drives a nail through horrible holiday happenings, "Santaland" slyly highlights the better parts of humanity. I dare you to retain a dry eye as Parrish tells of cheerful, unknown Santas who compliment mothers and daughters. Revel in the joy as Crumpet discovers his true family amidst the green velvet-bedecked flock at Macy's when the elves unite against the Christmas Eve hordes.
The Florida Rep production of "Santaland" has changed each year. An expanded ArtStage Studio Theatre sees this year's production performed in the round, a first. The innovation offers up rewards aplenty - and a few challenges.
Christopher T. Simpson reinvents the apartment set used for the previous two years. The former grungy, over-stuffed New York garret transforms into an airy, ultra-mod studio with sleek furnishings. A whopping fantastic copper light fixture (Tim Cobb) commands the space; it looks like a dozen calla lilies exploded in ecstasy. Tiny mementos from years past - like the "chocolate Santa" nestle into the nooks and crannies.
By now, with dozens of performances under his belt, Parrish knows the characters in "Santaland" backward and forward. In this fourth edition, some of the louder, more vividly drawn caricatures from the Sedaris prose rise to prominence.
My personal favorite still remains the sequence with uppity parents requesting Santas - whether black or white - for their kids. Neck rolls, clacking teeth, patting hair, facial gestures and dead-on accents allow Parrish to create indelible portraits of these people. You can almost imagine a hoity-toity African-American woman with a huge weave, a truckload of shopping bags and a cell phone glued to her ear demanding "uh Santuh of culuh" while snapping her fingers in front of the crowd.
Director Chris Clavelli returns for the third year. His sure hand remains evident in a skillful mastery of the set and a clever use of the space. Performing and presenting in the round represents no easy task. Clavelli moves the action in, out, up, down and around the expansive set with ease.
One of my favorite things about this year's show was a greater physicality than in years past - a gift afforded from the larger space. A minimalist arc floor lamp leaning over a desk creates an inviting doorway for Parrish to "peek" through, while a giant poof footstool offers a launchpad for histrionics that threaten to reach into the light grid.
Better, the completely re-imagined show forces Clavelli and Parrish to invent a way to involve the entire audience. Since Parrish always has his back to some part of the crowd, this "Santaland" includes exaggerated "reaction" shots. These succeed far better than they have a right to.
Anyone who's seen Jason Parrish on stage in one of Florida Rep's better farces - like the second act of "Noises Off," knows he makes funny faces for a living. Now, imagine a whole play filled with those looks of bewilderment at not being able to tell a group of New Yorkers from a special Macy's event for the profoundly retarded. Or envision the abject horror after a mother allows her son to pee in a fake snowbank. Go for the humor. Stay for the funny faces.
The Santaland Christmas tree does have a few burned-out bulbs. The in-the-round experience doesn't always deliver - no matter how hard Parrish works to engage every corner of the room. I love the expansive set, but I preferred the tighter, more intimate confines last year, when the show felt like a cozy fireside gathering with drinks and rum balls.
The show also feels slightly more deliberative. The need to deepen and lengthen the reactions in order to engage the crowd slows the action, if imperceptibly. As a result, "Santaland" brings a constant avalanche of laughs but never quite gets to the point of giddy, roll-in-the-snow excitement. I do wonder, too, whether year five might bring an update on the elf costume.
Finally, about those seating arrangements. There's a very special surprise waiting underneath the bench where Parrish stores part of his costume when he changes into Crumpet for the second half of the play. Ladies - and a few gents - you don't want to miss this one!
Elves, Santas and Cher, oh my! Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.