For all those decent human beings sick of the mass consumerism, core materialism and faux religiosity during this wacky time of year, essayist David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries doles out a perfect remedy—or at the least a much-needed holiday. And once again, after staging a wildly successful production of the irreverent piece on a whim three years ago, Tooth and Nail Theatre founder Roger Bennington and company reshift, rework and redesign this Utah tradition of a production for another remarkable run.
Sedaris wrote the piece (which was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello) after working a long yuletide season as a Macy’s department store elf—green outfit, pointy shoes, humiliation and all. Following an airing on NPR’s This American Life, The Santaland Diaries became so popular that somehow this Christmas story—a tale that exposes the merriment for everything that it could, should and definitely shouldn’t be—even made it here to Utah, which generally tries to ignore the ugly underbellies of most holidays. Sedaris clearly subverts what people have been told to believe, come to believe and want to believe about Christmas, delivering a story that has quickly a welcomed reprieve from the customary manufactured cock-and-bull eagerly dished out this time of year.
“I think people enjoy a nice sardonic take on things they’ve been forced to revere since their childhood,” says Bennington. “It’s struck a nerve, a funny bone or both, all over America.”
Honestly having no idea the play would be so successful here, Bennington is genuinely surprised to be staging the production for a third year in a row. Overcoming his own initial concerns of personal stagnation, and the fact that the one-man show’s star, Todd Parmley, skipped town for New York, he decided that an overhauled, more intimate version of the production with a shorter run would fit perfectly. So he cast off his original concept of a backstage tour of Santaland and instead adopted a sort of Unplugged idea.
“In terms of our preparation for the show this year, Todd and I looked at a lot of stand-up comedians, Margaret Cho being one of our favorites. We learned a lot by watching her, watching the way she listens and responds to the audience,” says Bennington. “So, this year when I thought of Santaland Unplugged, we really thought of pushing the idea of it being an act that was presented in a comedy club. That’s the direction we took it, just to mix it up, tailoring things to fit that concept.”
Rodney Cuellar’s design inspiration for the previous runs came from an exclusive look behind the scenes of your local mall’s Christmas extravaganza, delicately mixed with the look of the old Judy Garland and Liza Minelli stage productions—over-sized name traced in Broadway lights swapped for giant candy canes lit large. This year the core themes stemming from the comedy club idea prompted a complete redesign, including a change in venue. Instead of the cozy Black Box Theatre, the even more intimate Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center will host Santaland in 2002, resulting in a change in seating capacity from 200 to 75. For the show, the informal space has undergone a simple remake and artfully assumed the faint feeling and atmosphere of your characteristic comedy club.
“As far as the stage design we really have worked hard to include the audience,” says Bennington. “Often times I don’t understand where Rodney is going with his designs but now I think it perfectly reflects the way how gaudy Christmas has become and how David Sedaris turns it around and makes us look at it for what it truly is.”