Santaland Diaries: A modest, well-rounded Crumpet

Sedaris’s one-man play leaves its elf a lot of leeway. How does Darius Pierce play it?

Darius Pierce as Crumpet in ‘Santaland Diaries’ at Portland Center Stage/ Patrick Weishampel

By AL ADAMS

David Sedaris’s “Santaland Diaries” (both the play and the essay) are surely best recognized as a cynic’s take on Christmas tradition. A thirtysomething man with dashed entertainment-industry dreams, Sedaris uses his day job as a Macy’s Christmas elf to launch a grand expansion both of his career and of the “there is no Santa Claus” revelation: Not only is there no Santa Claus, but there are no elves. Yes, Virginia, “elves” are actually seasonal day-laborers consigned to clean up child vomit, withstand humiliating training regimens, and perpetuate the lie for not one but several idiosyncratic fake Santas. Merry Humbug. Ho ho ho.

Mercifully, though, there are a few more facets to this story: It’s also the tale of an intelligent person humbled by a brutal job market. It’s an unmasking of retail disingenuousness. It’s a kinky cosplay sexualization of erstwhile-presumed-asexual creatures (elves, Santa, customer servants). And—if you want it to be—it’s a reluctant admission that wonder, beauty and optimism repeatedly (if briefly) overturn our more jaded presumptions.

With its multiplicity of narratives, the script becomes as flexible as taffy in the hands of its elfin elocutioner, Crumpet. And the star of this year’s production at Portland Center Stage, Darius Pierce (who’s spent prior seasons narrating another PCS holiday play, “A Christmas Story”), jingled in on the heels of two distinct predecessors.

PCS’s original elf prince was Wade McCollum, who ushered the role into the theater’s repertoire in 2009 and reprised it in 2010. Artistically adept and physically too perfect (as displayed in his subsequent kimonoed role in Portland Playhouse’s “Angels in America,” a role that kept him out of the 2011 version), McCollum nailed the sexual subtext, the playful mockery and the holiday cheer—but his character’s humiliation was more suspect. Try as he might, he could not suppress his ebullient (dare I?) elf-confidence. As he moved on to the “Angels” role in 2011, I observed the following about his successor on Portland Monthly’s blog:

“Into the curl-toed slippers steps Jim Lichtscheidl, whose credits include the Coen Brothers film “A Serious Man,” and whose overall bearing maintains that title. Throughout his various impressions of addled Santa-seekers and manic Macy’s staffers, Jim maintains a sense of the narrator’s detached judgmentalism. The audience experience is, therefore, fairly complex: even as we marvel at the secondary characters’ quirkiness and naiveté, we perceive a steely glimmer of Sedaris’s disapproval shining through the corner of Jim’s eye.”

Lichtscheidl’s angular frame and razor-sharp persona certainly sold the play’s penultimate line, “I’m not a good person.” We believed you, Jim. And where was the last place we’d seen such a rancorous clown? Come to think of it, it was Darius Pierce as Touchstone in Artist Rep’s Portland Shakespeare Project’s “As You Like It,” a production which ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson described as “seeing red.” “I think this year’s Crumpet may be the angriest yet,” forecasted Johnson last week while reminiscing about the Shakespeare show. But Christmas, Children, is full of surprises….

Darius Pierce as Crumpet/Patrick Weishampel

Pierce totters onstage shyly, darting his eyes, adjusting his clothes and drawing a deep, trepidatious breath before beginning. Squat, bald, and resigned to a second-rate fate, Pierce fills this role the same way he does his candy-striped tights: he’s modest and well-rounded. This Crumpet is (forgive me) elf-effacing.

Inasmuch as it’s possible in a one-man show, Pierce fully dissolves into the story, allowing himself to flow freely through the inevitable bewilderment, snark, and childlike wonder as if he’s feeling them for the first time. His immersive technique is, one might venture, on a lofty par with Lauren Weedman (best known for “BUST,” last seen in “No…You Shutup”). By the time he concludes, “I’m not a good person,” we do NOT believe him—because he personifies sincerely trying one’s best. At curtain call on Sunday night, Pierce waved off a group of standing ovationers.

“Sit down, then get up, and go home,” he silently mouthed and from the edge of the curtain. How “method!” Santa’s helper is happy that you got what you came for, and he’s ready to guide the next group through.

3 Responses.

  1. greg says:

    you shall never be forgiven for that horrible elf pun.

  2. Nicole Lane says:

    What a wonderful, well-written review! Love the Crumpets-over-the-years bit. Wade was wonderful and adorable, but I can’t wait to see Darius in this role…I’m sure he is “elf-effacing,” as he is.

  3. A. L. Adams says:

    Greg, I love how much you hate it! And I hate how much I love it!

    Nicole, thank you! Between his Artists Rep work and this play, Darius has proven that he can interpret the role of “jester” in more than just one way.

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