— Ryan Beil in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The Santaland Diaries. Photo by Tim Matheson.
(This is Jerry's review of the original Arts Club production from 2012.)
The weather outside is frightful, although it’s more a soggy mess than a winter wonderland. But it is that time of year when our theatres start to fill with Christmas cheer.
I count four versions of A Christmas Carol upcoming, plus Christmas Nuts, Christmas Presence, at least three Christmas pantos, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The Arts Club has brought back White Christmas for the fourth consecutive year and It’s a Wonderful Life for the sixth. Ruby Slippers Theatre is remounting Hotel Bethlehem and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet will be dancing The Nutcracker again at the Queen E.
The biggest production of the season isn’t directly connected to Christmas, but Amaluna, the latest spectacular offering from Cirque du Soleil, under the striped tents near BC Place, is a feel-good story (in so far as it has a story at all) and a joyous celebration of athleticism, balance and beauty.
At the other end of the scale, size-wise, The Santaland Diaries is the season’s smallest production. Ryan Beil performs American humourist David Sedaris’ tale of his time working as one of Santa’s elves in New York’s Macy’s department store. If one actor in Vancouver can fill a stage by himself, Beil is the man.
Beil regales us with Sedaris’ story (supposedly autobiographical but apparently at least partly fictional) of his coming to New York in 1991 as a 33-year-old, desperate to find a job to help pay off his student loan. He has fantasies of success as a writer—preferably on his favourite soap, One Life to Live—but ends up reluctantly applying for the elf job, terrified that he might not even get it. He gets it.
The monologue focuses on the comic indignities and absurdities of life as an elf named Crumpet in the commercialized artifice of a retail store’s Christmas Department. Just having to wear the ludicrous elf outfit every day would be humiliation enough, with its little green tunic, red and white striped stockings, and green elfin shoes with their curled up toes.
But there’s worse, much worse. The geography of Santaland includes what the elves call The Vomit Corner, for obvious reasons, and the Oh My God corner, where the people in line realize they may have to wait up to two hours to see Santa.
Crumpet has to put up with crying kids and bullying parents, white people who don’t want to deal with a black Santa, troublesome fellow elves, and nutty Santas, not to mention management: “former elves who climbed their way up the candy cane ladder.” He hates himself for all the lies he has to tell. He and a co-worker rename Santaland Satanland.
This is all very funny stuff, especially in the hands of a virtuoso comedian like Beil. And this being a Christmas show, Sedaris finds plenty of light in the darkness, including one terrific Santa who nearly redeems all the losers. The writing never lapses into sentimentality but it never descends into cynicism, either.
Although at the opposite end of the production spectrum from Cirque du Soleil, the Arts Club’s Santaland Diaries has its share of fancy design effects. Director John Murphy punctuates Beil’s storytelling with Candelario Andrade’s snappy projections and William Moysey’s dynamic sounds.
But Murphy seriously overuses designer Ted Roberts’ mobile white set pieces. He has Beil constantly moving them around the stage to no apparent purpose, working up a terrific sweat in his already stifling costume. It’s a distraction for the audience and a little bit of Satanland for the actor.