Santaland’s Crumpet runs through his paces

Darius Pierce, star of PCS's annual "The Santaland Diaries," talks about his sophomore turn at the Sedaris-penned role.

In a week or so he’ll don his gay apparel—candy-striped tights, a velveteen jacket and curly-toed shoes—but today Darius Pierce sports a Cosby sweater, a pair of ripped khakis, and some white velcro sneaks. Between stacks of gift-wrapped boxes in the practice room, he’s being put on the spot.

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“Is there a way we can play up the snark when you mention your ‘8 hour workday’?” asks director Wendy Knox. Later, she’ll have him revisit the scene where he does sign language, (miming “Santa has a tumor in his head…”) to see if he can’t find another approach.

Knox is seated opposite Pierce at a long table with four others: Don Crossley (lighting designer ), Mark Tynan (stage manager), Karen Hill (production assistant) and Em Gustason (sound engineer/programmer and sound board operator). They’ve got binders and bottles of water, and they’re running through the show, scene by scene. Pierce affirms their notes, nodding demonstratively even when the verbiage seems vague, cupping his hands in front of his face to brood into them.

“I see what you’re saying.”

“That felt good.”

“Better?”

Then he starts the given section again from the top, swapping in new inflections, different gestures. It’s not easy…but this is how Christmas magic gets made.

The group is refining the 80-minute live version of David Sedaris’s hilarious memoir “The Santaland Diaries,” a work Pierce first undertook last year, but which has a long history at Portland Center Stage.

“Santaland” is a neo-classic that goes behind the scenes of Macy’s Department Store’s elaborate Holiday display and exposes it as just another workplace. First, Sedaris makes us see the elves as people: failed writers, hack actors, and fallen dancers. Then we’re subjected to the humiliations of corporate elf training: cheers spelling out “SANTA,” cash register protocols, and stern admonitions to keep one’s knickers clean. Finally, we’re ushered to the front lines, where Sedaris as newly-minted elf “Crumpet” must smile and wave amid crying children, impatient parents, obnoxious coworkers, and various other precarious rungs on the “candycane ladder.” All the while, the character is keenly aware of two things: 1) his job is BS; 2) he’s the reluctant guardian of small children’s Christmas experience. And these opposing motivations tug and twist the poor elf/writer like a taffy pull.

ArtsWatch sat down with Pierce post-practice to talk about his sophomore run at the role, sarcasm versus sincerity, and what audiences expect from a modern jester.

Q: Last year, ArtsWatch pegged you as a milder, more mellow Crumpet than your predecessor Jim Lichtscheidl…and a more down-to-Earth, less elevated and elegant one than HIS predecessor Wade McCollum. What did you think of that read, and has anything changed?

A: To be honest, I read that article with one eye closed last year, because I felt strongly that I didn’t want to make any decisions solely for the purpose of being different from Wade or Jim. But no, I think it was fair. I was able to go back and reread it recently having taken a step back, and yes. This is funny; you’re asking me for my opinion on your review of my performance.

Q: Yes. We’re getting very “meta.” Sorry. What feels new or different about this year?

A: Well, I’m more comfortable in the role now, naturally, so I feel a little bit freer. For the most part we already had the memorization, the blocking, and the knowledge of what jokes and punch lines really got an audience reaction. The opening of Santaland, for instance, [when curtains open behind Crumpet to reveal a sparkling, snowy Christmas village while he describes it] felt really good last year.

I also remember which jokes never landed, moments that may have dragged a little…things the audience may or may not have been conscious of, but I still feel confident we can refine. There’s a bit about Phil Collins that I never felt like I nailed, but we’re going to get it right this time.

Q: How do you mete out just the right amount of sarcasm and sincerity…or figure out which of those emotions to use for a given line?

A: I think it’s important for me NOT to look at the big picture, or worry about whether the overall balance will be right. Because if I focus on interpreting each moment how it’s intended, it’ll add up the right way. You can’t even say these jokes without the sarcasm coming out—and yet, even the sarcastic moments are, in a way, sincere. I don’t see Sedaris as a mean-spirited writer; even things he says that seem really mean on the surface, still come from a good-hearted place. That said, this is counter-programming and it’s not supposed to be sappy.

Q: Before you took this role, one of your last ones was as jester  Touchstone [in Portland Shakespeare Project’s As You Like It at Artists Rep]. ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson said you were ascerbic in that role. Then I saw Santaland and found you much more lovable than I’d been set up to expect. How do you see the jester archetype in theater? And what distinctions can you draw between the modern version you play in this show, and the classic Shakespearean type?

A: Hm. That’s a good question. In the classics, the jester was a person who was able to speak truth to power without repercussions—and our society still has humorists filling that role, though we no longer think of them as jesters. Jon Stewart is the jester of our times, and George Carlin before him.

One of my personal favorite portrayals of a Shakespearean jester would be Sir Ben Kingsley in the film version of The Twelfth Night—yet he doesn’t play it as a traditional “court jester” at all.

All this to say, I don’t think that Crumpet qualifies as a jester in this context—although it’s hard to deny the parallel in that outfit [Crumpet literally puts curly shoes and bells on]. But I personally can’t afford to think too much about the archetype. I have to focus on being the person in that situation.

It’s like if you’re playing a character that would be considered an ingenue, you can’t think about how to be ingenue-y…because then you’re performing the trope rather than playing your role. In the same way, my thought can’t be “How would a jester do this?” it has to be “How would I do this?”…and then that’ll be how the jester does it. Characters are just an accumulation of what they do.

Q: So you’re saying it’s my job to think about the jester archetype, and it’s your job not to. Fair enough. What I think is that a modern humorist like Sedaris differs from a Shakespeare fool in having the luxury of exposition. He’s able to tell us what’s going on behind the scenes, or in his head…expressing doubt and mixed motivations. We hear that stuff from serious characters like Hamlet, but it seems like the old-world jesters are always “on.” Any trepidation or second thoughts would be acted as subtext, but not stated in soliloquy.

A: Well, the luxury of exposition, as you say, is the luxury of one-man shows. Even if you consider me a jester in this show, I get the same luxury as Hamlet. I don’t have to hide anything from other characters on the stage, so I can just talk freely to the audience for 80 minutes. I guess so far in this interview I’ve compared myself to Jon Stewart, Hamlet, and Sir Ben Kingsley. People are going to think, “This guy’s got a massive ego.” I’m sorry; I don’t compare myself to any of those guys.

Q: No problem. What do you make of the fact that this show has become such a Christmas classic, despite (or maybe because of) its debunking Christmas?

A: Ah, but it doesn’t QUITE close the door. This show wants to hate Christmas so badly, but it can’t QUITE do it, because Christmas is so great! Like I said before, it’s counter-programming…but it’s not Grinchy.

“The Santaland Diaries” opens next weekend at Portland Center Stage.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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