On the evening of Black Friday -- that high holiday of the retail year -- Laboratory Theatre introduced itself to Madison with an adaptation of David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries, staged in the Bartell Theatre. Laboratory set up shop just this year, along with The Bricks Theatre and Forward Theater Company.
It would be hard to think of a more appropriate opening night for the author and public radio commentator's tales of working as an elf at Macy's Santaland in New York City. From pushy parents to terrified tots to general mayhem, the gig wasn't easy for Sedaris, yet his stories -- delivered over NPR in that droll, nasal voice of his -- launched him to fame beginning in 1992.
The challenge in staging Sedaris' material is to put a fresh stamp on it, rather than mimic his style. In that respect, lead actor R. Peter Hunt is successful. His Crumpet the Elf (later renamed Blisters) is a little angrier than Sedaris'; the author's inimitable voice always seems to convey a weary detachment. Director/choreographer/music director Michele Gerard Good has also added eight musical numbers that break up Crumpet's monologues.
Crumpet is the kind of elf you probably wouldn't want near your kids. As we learn, he failed his company drug test, lied about his love of whittling to the hiring manager (all he can remember whittling is a bong) and is taking the job out of sheer financial desperation.
At one point, Crumpet observes that "Santa" is an anagram of "Satan" and wonders what it would be like if Santaland could be transformed into Satanland, where children are escorted not by green velvet-clad elves but by hideous demons. Instead of cheerfully proclaiming their love for St. Nick, they'd exclaim, "I love Satan!"
Some of the musical interludes are more successful than others. A spoof on the Carol of the Bells has new lyrics focusing on coveted consumer goodies ("Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii..."). The Western-style number "Cactus Christmas" was pleasingly unfamiliar, but a reindeer go-go dance set to an Esquivel tune suffered from awkward choreography.
The supporting performers all take on multiple roles. My favorite was Russell Wolff as a sleazy, cheesy elf Crumpet dubs "The Walrus." With his shirt open to nearly his belly button -- all the better to showcase his ample chest hair and medallion -- the Walrus has a come-on for just about every mom toting a little one.
Unfortunately, there were some space issues with the tiny Evjue Stage. In addition to the theater's fixed seating, there are also some small tables and folding chairs set up cabaret-style around the performance area. While the extra seating was useful on a sold-out opening night -- and allowed for closer interaction between performers and audience -- it was difficult at times for performers to exit the stage. I was glad I wasn't sitting in those seats.
Another off note in the evening came from one of Crumpet's stories, in which he recounts the time "a large group of retarded people" came to Santaland and how, after a while, it became hard to tell where that group of people ended at the "regular" people began, since they all shared the same glazed, bewildered expressions. Rather than funny, it was unnecessarily mean. Why did director Good chose to keep that anecdote in, especially when other liberties were taken with the show?
Sedaris' sardonic take on modern life clearly has a fan base in Madison. His 2008 appearance at the Overture Center drew a sell-out crowd, and he'll return in April 2010. Whether Laboratory Theatre's Santaland Diaries will scratch that itch in the meantime, though, is an uncertain question.