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Holly and Folly
Tooth & Nail Offers a Fifth Helping of ‘The Santaland Diaries’

By Jeremy Mathews
Pre-Debut Interview:
'The Santaland Diaries'
Tooth & Nail Theatre
Rose Wagner Center
(138 W. 300 South)
Through Dec. 30 at 8 p.m.
with 3 p.m. matinees on
Sundays and Christmas Eve.
No shows on Mondays and
Buy tickets for $22 via
Use code: SANTA for a $5
discount on opening weekend

"The Santaland Diaries” is a gift for everyone who would rather laugh hysterically at the crass consumerism of the holiday season than learn about the true meaning of Christmas. The biting, satirical account of David Sedaris's season working as an elf in Macy’s Department store depicts the obnoxious parents, in-fighting employees and bizarre Santas who populate that most wonderful time of the year.

In Salt Lake City, the one-man-show adaptation of NPR personality Sedaris’s material is becoming something of a tradition. For five of the past six years, director Roger Benington and star Todd Parmley of the Tooth & Nail Theatre company have produced the play at the Rose Wagner Center. The year that the company produced Becky Mode’s “Fully Committed” instead, it was clear that the crowds were still eager for another trip to Santaland.

“People ask for it back," Benington says. "‘Fully Committed’ is a great show, but people really love ‘Santaland.’ One of the most amazing things to me is that last year was our fourth year of doing the show and we had better sales than we’ve ever had. I mean, we’ve always done well with ‘Santaland,’ but pretty much every show sold out last year.”

Parmley relocated to New York City four years ago, but still returns in December to perform the show with the company he co-founded. He and Benington, the company’s artistic director, have seen the audience expand from die-hard fans to mainstream swarms as word-of-mouth built up and Sedaris's popularity grew.

“Back in...2000, we did ‘Santaland’ for the first time and it was a very NPR crowd...very sassy and artsy,” Benington says. “And last year, they were just like regular folk, which is really exciting for us.”

It’s not hard to understand why more and more people are falling in love with the writer’s witty observations on human nature. His piece supports Sartre's proclamation that "Hell is other people," whether you're serving them or working with them. The targets of his venemous prose include parents irrationally obsessed with getting a perfect photo of their kids with Santa and the annoying slew of people who all believe that they’re the first ones to come up with an obvious joke. Worst of all is Sedaris's personal humiliation of being reduced to a ridiculously dressed elf who must serve these morons.

The director and star only learned of Sedaris and "Santaland" shortly before the first production. Set and costume designer Rodney Cuellar suggested the play, and according to Benington, “I said, OK. And I hadn’t even read it.”

Meanwhile, Parmley, who was in a play in Berkeley, Calif., had only recently learned of Sedaris after a fellow cast member handed him a copy of the writer’s essay collection Naked because Parmley reminded her of Sedaris. “I read it cover to cover within the next two days. And then, like, three or four days later Roger called me and said, ‘Do you have any interest in doing this thing by David Sedaris?’”

The stage script, adapted by Joe Montello, reproduces the original’s prose verbatim, but does cut out and slightly re-arrange some sections. The most significant departure from the original essay is the removal of a key scene in which our put-upon elf encounters a role reversal. Looking at a box of plastic eyeballs, he learns that his own idea of a laugh riot is another man’s tired, oft-repeated joke. Without the scene, the piece loses some of the reflective edge beyond the laughter. “It does put it into perspective and in some ways make it more human,” says Benington.

“He’s in the position of one of the masses that come to Santaland that he has so much disdain for. He thinks exactly like everyone else,” Parmley says, adding that he thinks that Montello cut the segment in an attempt to confine all the events to Santaland.

Eyeball scene or not, Montello’s script appeals to actors and directors not only with its wit, but with a liberating lack of stage direction. Those who’ve seen the production may be surprised to learn that the props, like a joint our elf hero lights up, weren’t specified. “On the pages of the script, there is one stage direction, which is he changes into his elf costume. So what we have enjoyed so much about the show is finding ways to be really inventive about telling the story that makes it a theatrical experience, as opposed to reading the book at home,” says Benington. Tooth & Nail even embelishes that one stage direction, turning the wardrobe change into a burlesque number.

While Parmley knows the material better than an elf knows how to clean urine, the company still runs full rehearsals each year so that he and Benington can explore new interpretations of his character and the voices he uses when Sedaris quotes co-workers and customers. “The thing with this script is, he’s sharing his life experience, obviously with a lot of fantasy and his own point of view mixed in. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy doing the script over and over,” Parmley says. “There’s no end to the depth which you can experience as an actor.”

Parmley says that the deadpan readings from Sedaris on the NPR recording are hilarious because he lets you imagine who the characters are, but that as a stage actor, it’s his job to embody them. “There may be five or six different ways to go with it, and that’s part of the fun too. One character one year can be saying the exact same thing next year, but be completely different,” he says.

This year, Parmley and Benington added emphasis on the hero’s angst. “What leads him to this job in Santaland is desperation. Todd’s lived in New York. It’s a good place to experience that. I’m pushing Todd to explore more of that anxiety and fear of being without a job or skills in New York City,” Benington says. Parmley is also pushing himself, as he hopes to perform the show as an industry showcase in New York City this summer.

But right now, the collaborators are beginning the first weekend of their run, delivering a treat for those who want a different Christmas theater experience. "The Nutcracker" and "A Christmas Carol" are fine, but "Santaland" brings a different crowd. As Benington puts it, “Our audience goes for beer afterwards.”

jeremy [at]

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