2012's The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I was trying to look on the bright side."
David Josef Hansen as Crumpet; photo: Scott Barrow
David Josef Hansen is this year’s actor in Shakespeare and Company’s third annual presentation of "The Santaland Diaries." He plays David, a successful actor who early in his career spent a season at Macy’s Department Store playing a Santaland elf, self-named Crumpet. As David prepares his apartment - with a startlingly beautiful view of New York City - for a holiday party he recounts the story of this mis-spent season when, broke and lonely, he took on a role for which he was emotionally and psychologically unprepared.
Hansen gives us a somewhat darker view of David and his work than his predecessors have done. Peter Davenport in December, 2010 was able to transform himself from a handsome, happy man into the ogre-like elf whose oddities were both unpleasant and yet charming. Ryan Winkles, last December, was whimsical, silly, fascinating and clearly a flawed Crumpet with a winning way about him. Hansen, even with his openness and generosity to early-arrival guests (the audience), always seems to be lurking on the edge of the dark side. His David seems almost a creation of Stephen King, horror-meister author of scary books, with a split personality that transcends the usual actor’s ability to simply transform. Long before his tale of that wintry season of a life in the hell of commercial Christmas takes shape, Hansen’s David is alluringly seductive in the sense of a demon pursuing a maiden.
It is when he falls into his Crumpet manifestation that the real darkness, a humorous darkness but a grim world nevertheless, really takes shape. For the first time, for me, the ongoing references to Satan and his pursuits became the reason for the play, for the diaries themselves. In Hansen’s hands the dark side wins out - at least temporarily - and the resultant party to come in the place of beauty that David inhabits seems almost sardonic.
Not that I didn’t laugh a lot during the 71 minutes performance. I did. I had a fine time celebrating an experience that clearly had ramifications on a life and a lifestyle. What I also had was a small bumpy road of realizations. Sedaris, the author, experienced all of this and Hansen, just like Winkles and Davenport, also experiences what the author went through in the darkest days of a dawning career. He, with the guidance of his director Tony Simotes, comes out the other side still whole and still healthy but changed. Unlike the previous viewings with Davenport restored and Winkles rejoiced, Hansen brings us to a place where the reality of his experience is turned into an unreality where darkness and light are reversed.
I noticed a subtle sense of changes in the lighting of this show, I believe. Stephen Ball seems to have given the actor opportunities to struggle through the harder moments in a dimmer light than usual. Hansen’s sharp features lose definition at times as he is placed out of direct light and the result here is a mood change that is fostered by certain points in the story he recounts. If the intention was to bring us a sense of that old, wonderful black-and-white television show, "The Twilight Zone." then the outcome is an almost perfect replication of its quirkier moments.
With a new actor in the role, the director has managed to redefine some of the author’s playful references and some of the adapter’s pointed ones. Christmas, the time of light in darkness, emerges here in its commercialized state at a big store as its reflected image and it makes you think a lot about childhood, the transition into adulthood and the mania of aging. This is not just another "Christmas Carol" with its redemption of a soul; this is about the opposite, about the loss of personal dignity, about the need to hit a new low point in order to achieve the heights. The Santaland Diaries, 2012, is about all of us who travel a constant road to self-realization.
The Santaland Diaries plays a principally week-end schedule at Shakespeare and Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA through December 30. For information and tickets go to their website at www.shakespeare.org or call the box office at 413-637-3353.