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THEATER REVIEW: The Santaland Diaries

Our Light and Salvation: Charleston Stage's Santaland saves us from Yuletide treacle

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The Santaland Diaries
Presented by Charleston Stage
Dec. 12-14, 20-21, 8 p.m.
Dec. 15, 22, 6 and 9 p.m.
$19.50-$26.50
American Theater
446 King St.
(843) 577-7183
www.charlestonstage.com

It's a classic story — one man suffers for our sins and in return, we are all saved.

During the Christmas season of 1991, that man was humorist David Sedaris and his suffering was the ultimate nightmare: working as a Santaland elf at Macy's in New York City.

He kept a journal of his experience and a year later, National Public Radio invited him to read from his notes. His essay took less than 20 minutes to read, yet its impact on the world of Christmas entertainment has been profound. Re-broadcast in a slightly expanded form each season, it is now a staple of Yuletide programming on NPR. For those of us reeling from the agony of another dietetically sweet Christmas season on stage, it's our light and our salvation.

Estimates are that The Santaland Diaries will be one of the top 10 most-produced plays of the 2007-2008 season, and such popularity demonstrates the power of the word to convert followers to its message. Acerbic, shocking, spiteful, and crass, retailers would never have you see Christmas like this. Little is sacrosanct in this work. Sedaris relates with brutal honesty the sins of the holiday shopper and their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, otherwise known as Macy's.

An equal opportunity satirist, his descriptions of the lengths Christmas retailers go to drive sales are bitingly funny. This is a thankfully adult show. Discussing everything from blood-stained elfin knickers to racially profiled choices of Santa Claus, such harsh-yet-humorous honesty restores our sanity during this hectic time of year.

It takes a brave prophet to spread such a controversial word, and fortunately, we have it in the form of director Greg Tavares, his talented cast, and the company of Charleston Stage. They have seen great success with their smaller productions at the American Theater this year and this show continues that streak. Expanded by its adaptation to stage, and now expanded further by changing from a one-man show to a three-person one-act, everything about this story improves in its retelling. Seeing it come to life is like getting a behind-the-scenes peek at a world we should never get to witness.

Reading the original essay is funny. Listening to Sedaris read it on NPR is more humorous still. But watching the story of our savior presented in the brilliant colors and lights of the season on a stage designed by Stefanie Christensen is a revelation.

Everything works together to allow the sarcastic witticisms to flow. From costumes in rich velour by Barbara Young to the sounds of the season, the staged version tells the story of Sedaris' slow indoctrination, his persecution at the hands of shoppers and managers, and his final sacrifice, giving in and becoming the model of an elf determined to see you through the horror that is Christmas Eve.

In the role of Crumpet, the chosen name of our elf, is Matthew Bivins. On stage since the age of 5, and once a member of the popular Charleston band Jump, Little Children, Bivins has just the right amount of attitude for the role. It is easy to see why almost half the audience on preview night was part of his cult-like following. He tells the story with just the right amount of sarcasm, but retains the easy-going attitude of someone slightly intoxicated relating a painfully funny event from his life. While a member of the band he was described as dynamic, sexy, and melodramatic. During Santaland's mock striptease, it's this same set of characteristics that highlights his popularity and appeal.

Every savior needs disciples, and Bivins has his in the form of JC Conway and NeYama Kim Duncan. Since Santaland was originally a one-man show, it would be easy to say the expansion is to support a weak central character, but this is far from the case. Conway and Duncan have the arduous task of playing everyone else in the show, and they do so with gusto, great comedic timing, and numerous costume changes, bringing more of the story to life before our eyes.

Duncan is especially funny when Bivens lists the various duties of a Santaland elf. From photo elf to checkout elf, this is a cute scene of quick transitions that only works due to her great expressions and contortions. Conway has his moments as a lewd elf who treats Santaland like his personal nightclub. Leery and scary, this is not someone with whom you want your children to spend "quality time."

Eventually though, even Santaland is subject to the holiday spirit, as one — yes, but it's just one — touching story manages to sneak its way in amongst those of screaming parents and elfin debaucheries.

While popularity may eventually be Santaland's downfall, moving it from shocking commentary into the dreaded realm of Christmas classic, for now this is Sedaris' great sermon on the mount about everything wrong with the season.

In delivering his message, he's managed to illuminate and entertain, while providing a social critique that is resoundingly funny. Be sure to take a holiday from the holy days and remember that it's OK to laugh at the sacred when the message gets too serious.

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