Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Santaland Diaries performed by Joe Brack

The Warehouse Theater
Washington D.C.
December 10th, 2009

The following review is going to be a bit of a departure from the norm for the Music Binge, given the fact that its However, it is a performance and it is art, so I feel that it still fits the bill for what this whole project is all about. And it’s my blog, so if you don't like it, don't read it. As always...enjoy!

Before I get into talking about the actual show that I witnessed tonight, let me first fill you in on the tucked away little gem that is the Warehouse Theater. Given that I am no theater buff, I have very little knowledge about the venues in this city that host such events. Since the metro stop for this place was Gallery Place/Chinatown, a hub for DC tourists and suburbanites looking to have some fun in the "big city", I figured I was heading to a well known and oft-frequented venue. What I didn't realize is that after walking 4 or 5 blocks from the metro and leaving the lights and glitz of the Chinatown area behind me, I was actually heading to a dark, back-alley theater-dive. To enter the Warehouse Theater, I literally had to walk through a barren parking lot towards a building that looked guessed abandoned warehouse. The only thing that gave me the remote hope that I was heading in the right direction was the huge blow-up Frosty the Snowman waving at me from the door. There were no signs, no cars in the parking lot, not even other theater-goers to lead the way, since I was nearly an hour early...this was going to be interesting.

Once inside, I found the place to be a small, cozy escape from the freezing cold. Christmas lights adorned the walls, a small, makeshift bar was set up in the corner and three rows of tiered chairs were set out on either side of the place, creating a stage right in the center of the room. The theater was probably big enough to seat about 100 people, tops.

After the crowd filled in, there were a few brief announcements about the theater company and the usual guidelines were laid out for photography, no exiting the venue during the performance and no cell which time of course, someone's cell phone began to ring. The unfortunate person sitting in the front row scrambled to answer his phone and when he couldn't get it out of his pocket, he was forced to stand up and take the call while all eyes rested solely on him. What a perfect way to get the attention of your audience! It didn't take long to figure out that the owner of the misbehaving cell phone was in fact Mr. Joe Brack himself...and alas, The Santaland Diaries was underway.

If you aren't familiar with the play, it is a comedy based on an essay by David Sedaris about his experiences working as a Christmas elf at Macy's in New York City. As far as I know, it is a true story. The stage adaptation is a one-man show, which in my opinion, makes it all the more interesting. Like musicians who take the stage solo, any actor who can get in front of an audience and carry an entire performance on their shoulders alone has, without a doubt, earned my respect.

Joe Brack did a superb job of handling this pressure and showing all in attendance what it might be like to work as "Crumpet the elf". The humiliation of such a job was described early on in the performance when Brack, adorned in a pointy hat and stockings pulled to his knees, quietly recited about his attire: "I wear green, velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform."

The humor of The Santaland Diaries is in the self-deprecating, raw and uncut variety, not unlike the movie Bad Santa starring Billy Bob Thornton. The performance uses the experiences of Crumpet the elf to point out the uglier side of the holiday season...everything from spoiled, greedy kids and their catering parents to racism (when one parent requests not to be sent to a black Santa). It is a no-holds barred look into the over-commercialization of the holidays and it is unfortunately all too real. Countless times during the performance, I thought to myself "sad, but true". Take this sample exchange between Crumpet, the mother of a spoiled child and said spoiled child...all acted out perfectly by Brack:

"This morning I worked as an exit elf, telling people in a loud voice: this way out of Santaland. A woman was standing at one of the cash registers paying for her pictures while her son lie beneath her, kicking and heaving, having a tantrum.

The woman said, Riley, if you don't start behaving yourself, Santa's not going to bring you any of those toys you asked for. The child said: he is too going to bring me toys, liar. He already told me.

The woman grabbed my arm and said: you there, elf, tell Riley here that if he doesn't start behaving immediately, then Santa's going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas. I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things.

I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. All of your appliances Riley, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It is going to be so cold and dark where you are. You're going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.

The woman got a worried look on her face and said: all right, that's enough. I said: he's going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing. The mother said: no, that's enough really."

It's that kind of scathing humor that permeates The Santaland Diaries and Brack's performance. The slow, transformation from a humiliated Macy's employee forced to wear a stupid looking elf costume, to a vindictive and spiteful person, tired of witnessing the ill-effects of society's overindulgence during the holidays. And haven't we all felt that same transformation during the holiday season? As the excitement of finding that perfect gift for a special someone gives way to the angst and ire of dealing with the waves of humanity at the local shopping mall.

The highlight of Brack's performance as Crumpet the elf had to be the segment where Santa is asking each child to sing his/her favorite Christmas carol. When one particularly shy child refuses to sing, Santa turns to his trusty elf (Crumpet of course) and asks him to sing instead. The carol to be sung is "Away in a Manger" and Brack/Crumpet, angry at the mere thought of having to sing for this kid, decides to do his best Billie Holiday rendition. Brack's mock-sexy performance as he sang in a sultry voice "Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little lord Jesus lay down his sweet head" was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

I don't want to give the impression that the whole point of The Santaland Diaries is to merely be cynical about the holidays. Towards the end of the play, when Brack/Crumpet witnesses a mother yelling at her child for crying on Santa's lap and thus ruining the perfect photo-op, the true message is revealed. The point of Sedaris's essay, which Brack's performance made perfectly clear, is that Christmas has become a time when many (most?) people attempt to create the ideal, perfect world for themselves, even when that world isn't representative of real life. It is a humorous way of saying that we've lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas and the holiday season. Watching Brack in the Santaland Diaries was a great reminder that we all need to slow down to enjoy the season…and life for that matter.

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