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Cheer and loathing in Santaland

December 19, 2018
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Cheer and loathing in Santaland (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)

BANGOR – You’ve heard about the good elf. Now, it’s time to check out the bad elf. His name is Crumpet and he is more snark than sugar.

Penobscot Theatre Company is presenting the one-man show “The Santaland Diaries,” written by David Sedaris, at the Bangor Arts Exchange. The show – starring Dominick Varney – runs through Dec. 30 at BAE; for tickets or more info, you can contact the PTC box office at 942-3333.

It ain’t easy being holly jolly. Perhaps the Christmas season is starting to wear on you. Maybe you’ve had your fill of joyfulness and cheer and all that other Yuletide stuff. If so, then taking a trip with Crumpet to Santaland might be just the thing for you.

“The Santaland Diaries” is the story of David, an unemployed fellow who one day finds a classified ad for elves to work in the Macy’s Christmas display. On a dare from his roommate, David responds to the ad. He goes through the lengthy hiring process and earns his bells, dubbing himself Crumpet. Then it’s off to Santaland.

Crumpet walks us through the trials and tribulations of elf life, from dealing with children and parents to understanding the motivations of fellow employees. It’s a wonderfully satiric look at one of the particularly commercial aspects of the holiday season.

But here’s the main thing you need to know about this show. It’s funny. Really funny. Full of elf-deprecation and elf-loathing, it’s an absolute delight, a fast-paced and frenetic hour that is packed with laughs, more holiday jeer than cheer.

This production marks the fourth time that PTC has put forward “The Santaland Diaries.” It ran three times back in the late-00s; then-artistic director Scott R. C. Levy played the role in 2006, while PTC mainstay Nathan Halvorson took it on in 2007. And in 2008?

Why, it was Dominick Varney – the same Dominick Varney reviving the character now. And is this show as good as the ones that came before it, you ask? No. No, it is not.

It’s better.

Holding the stage solo for even a minute is tough, so you can imagine what it might be like to try and do it for an hour. And yet, Varney handles it with easy grace. His David/Crumpet has all of Sedaris’s snarkiness and self-deprecation but is also informed with an undercurrent of sweetness that accentuates moments both tender and outrageous.

A character like Crumpet could easily become an unlikable caricature, shrill and two-dimensional, but Varney avoids that trap, too. There’s no moment when the character and the story are not being embraced; Varney simply never comes off as the least bit disingenuous. His sincerity shines through.

In truth, it’s the sheer energy that stays with you. Varney hits the stage and he is ON. Capturing the attention of an audience isn’t easy and holding it is downright hard, yet he does it with seeming ease from the moment he hits the stage. He’s a pro – he knows when to lean into a bit and when to let it breathe, choosing intensity or gentility at precisely the proper moment. It’s all broad and very weird, but also unwaveringly honest. That combination of energy and honesty is what makes the performance so compelling.

It’s also fascinating to consider the differences between this performance and the one from years ago. The actor has grown and changed so much over the past decade – we all have – and that evolution has resulted in a Crumpet that is more layered, more nuanced than the one that came before. And it’s not that that previous performance was lesser – it’s that this new one is so much more. A lot of life happened in those intervening years; it’s fascinating to see that passage of time poured into the revisiting of a performance such as this one.

“The Santaland Diaries” is the perfect seasonal companion to PTC’s other holiday production of “Elf: The Musical.” The one is full of sarcasm while the other is full of sentiment; they couldn’t be more different, but that doesn’t change the fact that each piece honors the holiday season in a delightful manner.

So go check it out. Crumpet will definitely make it worth your while. Nice is great, sure … but sometimes, you want to get a little naughty.

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