For George Gonzalez, one the greatest challenges in directing “The Santaland Diaries,” author David Sedaris’ wickedly funny bitch session about a season spent serving time as an elf in Santaland at Macy’s department store, was what to do about Snowball, the fellow elf on whom main character Crumpet (R. Peter Hunt) has a crush.
“Last year there was a ‘family-friendly’ version of ‘The Santaland Diaries’ that wasn’t so successful,” said Gonzalez, who is also co-founder and artistic director for The Bricks Theatre, which is mounting the show at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre for four performances Dec. 9-12. “In this show Peter and I decided that Crumpet is gay, but that factor is not overly emphasized.”
The 2009 adaptation eliminated the mention of Snowball and the element of gayness entirely, bookending Crumpet’s griping with happy holiday songs. One could argue that the absence of so critical a character trait may have significantly undermined the openly gay author’s intent. Or perhaps the lack of that element and some of the show’s “naughtier” characteristics let the treacle flow a little too freely, making the production only slightly edgier than a Christmas Eve nativity pageant. Gonzalez doesn’t foresee that as being a problem for The Bricks’ production this year.
“The arc of Crumpet’s story is his anger over having to take a crappy job, something to which a lot of us can relate,” says Gonzalez, who has had to work as a part-time drama instructor and in two different restaurants since the demise of Madison Repertory Theatre, for which he served as marketing and communications officer. The Bricks, which Gonzalez is working very hard to establish, is one of two companies to rise from the Rep’s ashes.
“We like things that are edgy, but with a little heart, and ‘The Santaland Diaries’ fills the bill,” Gonzalez says.
In the right hands, this one-act, one-elf play can be a scathingly funny and engaging look at the worst of the holidays from someone caught squarely in the gun-sights of the season’s crass commercialism. Crumpet rails about his fellow elves, the rudeness of the customers and a host of other ills with which most of us can relate.
The original story, read by Sedaris on a National Public Radio “Morning Edition” broadcast on Dec. 23, 1992, was adapted for the stage by Mantello in 1996. It first appeared as a Madison Rep production in 2005 and starred gay Milwaukee actor John McGivern in the role of Crumpet. The Rep paired Sedaris’ one-act play with McGivern’s own “Home for the Holidays,” the actor’s reminisces of Christmases while growing up on Milwaukee’s East Side.
Gonzalez also plans to lengthen this year’s productions with a few additions that will precede “Santaland.” The first is a production of Matt Hoverman’s “The Student,” a 10-minute short about a drama student who writes a play called “Simon the Gay Elf,” ostensibly about one of Santa’s helpers who has a crush on his boss, but one that reflects his own crush on his drama teacher. The second is a song, “Surabaya Santa,” in which Mrs. Claus sings about Santa’s loss of affection and her growing love for the elves. Gonzalez says the production is an adaptation of an old German song, “Surabaya Johnny,” which covers much of the same ground without the holiday theme.
“This is a good adult combination and really fits The Bricks Theatre,” Gonzalez says.