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FESTIVE PURGATORY: ‘Santaland Diaries’ puts a dark twist on the most wonderful time of the year

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“The Santaland Diaries” is a cool tradition to carry on, and it’s fantastic Panache is picking up the tinsel.

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There is a ton of unneeded stress put upon people every December, and it can be enough to destroy any good will toward man. Now, try dealing with all that seasonal depression while dressed as one of Santa’s happy little helper elves at Macy’s Santaland, and spreading forced Christmas cheer to a neverending mob of ungrateful kiddos and enraged parents. Thus is the glamorous festive purgatory David Sedaris’ avatar Crumpet, a disgruntled elf, navigates the audience through, while also finding his own (if not demented)Christmas spirit in “The Santaland Diaries.”

The play started life as a hilarious essay from North Carolina’s own humorist David Sedaris. His essay covered the nightmares and pitfalls which befell him as he worked the seasonal job as an elf in Macy’s massive Santaland display. From horny elves, drunken Santas, vomiting children, and foul parents, all the holiday horrors are on full display in an exposé of the corporate-fueled season.

What Sedaris was able to do with his work is truly special; it never pulls punches or panders to the audience about how much the holiday flat-out sucks. And it still captures the festive spirit of the season, showing what Christmas becomes when one is at an odd in-between time of life—past the age of childlike wonder and not yet a parent creating the wonder. Here the audience is shown the cracks of Christmas easily accessible at some points in life—and should one be lucky, crawl out of with a few extra bucks.

Though not a traditional way to bring about the seasonal spirit, “The Santaland Diaries” certainly is a tradition to the Wilmington area. Started by the now-defunct City Stage, they carried the show for 10 years. It’s a torch now proudly passed on to Panache Theatrical Productions. In some neat IMDB trivia, Panache’s very origins are owed to “The Santaland Diaries”—for the company was formed to stage the show back in 2015, when its founder, Anthony Lawson, wanted to embody the angry elf himself. Now, Lawson steps to the other side of the curtain as director for the latest production. He lends a naughty sense of humor to the quick-witted confessional about all the creatures that stirred through the house.

In total, 2018’s “Santaland” is the 14th time that the play has been regifted to Wilmington. Over the years the who’s who of our theatre scene has filled the Crumpet role. All have brought their own voices, mannerisms and temperaments to the role—which seems like something of a “boys club” (though, I could easily think of a few actresses who could sport the sugar-loaf hat and jiggling shoes perfectly, if only David Sedaris’ camp who oversee the rights to the production would allow it).

The 14th Crumpet comes in the reclusive Kevin Wilson, who is making his way back  to the stage after a long hiatus. He last graced the stage in 2013 with Thalian Association’s “Other Desert Cities,” as well as being nominated for best supporting actor by the Wilmington Theater Awards the same year for his turn as Nick Bottom in Shakespeare on the Green’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In both, Wilson put a full-on personal display of both an internal and external performance from both sides of drama and comedy.

Now stepping into the pointed toe shoes, the sad-looking bastard combines both skills masterfully to defy suspension of disbelief. Transcending the player, he creates something more akin to a naturalistic stand-up routine, like a really dark TEDTalk. Wilson presents to the audience an honest guy who is at his wits’ end and making the very best out of his absolute last choice. He gives Crumpet a genuine smile and greets everyone with the same you-don’t-mess-with-me-I-won’t-mess-with-you attitude. His belief in Santa is all gone, and his faith in humanity is slipping.

Doing all he can to keep his sanity without getting fired, Wilson perfectly personifies his ever-growing hatred of the snot-nose little brats. He even informs one naughty kid Santa no longer deals out coal to bad children but in fact now steals from them. Thrown under the proverbial bus by one of the faceless Santas to sing “Away in the Manger,” Wilson’s Crumpet breaks into a killer cover of the number in the vein  of Billie Holiday. Washed in blue light and bringing to mind David Lynch, the moment is worth the price of admission alone.

Close to the finish line of the play, Crumpet may or may not meet the real Santa Claus. I know! It’s a moment sold so well by Wilson that one can’t help but feel a new sense of hope moving forward. Yet, like life, the show never misses an opportunity to drop the hammer right on the audience’s funny bone and will leave everyone laughing at Crumpet instead of with him.

Like grand debates, such as Sean Connery vs. Timothy Dalton for Bond, or David Tennant vs. Tom Baker over Doctor Who, Wilson fits so well into the Crumpet role, I feel a solid argument could be made he is one of the best.

Joining him in this “Ho, Ho, Holy Hell” are the Not Ready for Christmas Carolers: Amy Carter, Jacy Coffman and Kaleb Bradley. They’re three other lost souls, employed as elves and serenade Crumpet with classic Christmas tunes. “Mele Kalikimaka” is a personal favorite number, as is the dark metal cover of “Here Comes Satan Claws!” Yes, SATAN. They sing the songs cheerfully and play the moments around Crumpet, helping form his world—while scantily clad.

The set is simple yet sprawling. Giant Christmas wreaths dress the walls to lead into Santaland, which is filled with plastic trees and a kinda comfortable-looking green Santa chair. Four colorful blocks light up during blackouts, and look quite beautiful on their own. The lighting is a simple up-and-down setup, but perfectly-timed effect, with a quick flash as if children’s photos with Santa are taking place during Crumpet’s tale. It’s a small detail but one, which adds quite a lot.

What’s a holiday but a continued tradition? “The Santaland Diaries” is a cool tradition to carry on, and it’s fantastic Panache is picking up the tinsel. It’s not a run-of-the-mill Christmas play but something for audiences who want more R-ratings added to the spirit. Check out a dark twist on the most wonderful time of the year.

Santaland Diaries
Through December 16, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $22-$25
Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre
310 Chesnut St.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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