Review: Florida Rep's 'Santaland' unwraps characters, big laughs in third year

Written by bestselling humorist and NPR & New Yorker contributor, David Sedaris, 'The Santaland Diaries' is a hilarious and honest portrait of the zany Christmas season that Sedaris spent working as an Elf in Macy's Santaland. Adapted for the stage by Tony winning actor & director, Joe Mantello, 'The Santaland Diaries' takes audiences on an Elfin journey from the interview process to the last crazed shopping days before Christmas. Jason Parrish (above) plays Sedaris in the one-man show. Photo courtesy Florida Repertory Theatre

Chip Hoffman / Florida Repertory Theatre

Written by bestselling humorist and NPR & New Yorker contributor, David Sedaris, "The Santaland Diaries" is a hilarious and honest portrait of the zany Christmas season that Sedaris spent working as an Elf in Macy's Santaland. Adapted for the stage by Tony winning actor & director, Joe Mantello, "The Santaland Diaries" takes audiences on an Elfin journey from the interview process to the last crazed shopping days before Christmas. Jason Parrish (above) plays Sedaris in the one-man show. Photo courtesy Florida Repertory Theatre

What: One-man show adapted from David Sedaris essay about working as a Macy's elf

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday from Dec. 14-31; no shows Dec. 24-26.

More: Special Sunday matinée and twilight shows at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 18

Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers

Cost: $25; $10 student tickets

Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org

Something else: Free parking across the street

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— Jason Parrish has been wearing a green velvet costume to play Crumpet the Elf in Florida Rep's production of "The Santaland Diaries" going on three years now. The costume might be the same, but Parrish and director Chris Clavelli keep unwrapping layers of fun in this delicious holiday treat.

"SantaLand Diaries" launched the career of humorist David Sedaris when it was read aloud on National Public Radio in December 1992. Joe Mantello adapted the essay as a 70-minute one-man stage play that has become a holiday staple around the country. (Listen to David Sedaris read "SantaLand Diaries")

Sedaris - then an out-of-work writer - took a job as an elf at Macy's annual Santaland extravaganza in New York. The show takes a withering look at holiday craziness. And it is insanely, laugh-out-loud, cackle until you wheeze for breath funny.

Year one, directed by Brian Maschka, was sharp but contemplative, focusing on the show's anti-consumerist themes. Year two, with Clavelli in the director's chair, was a frenetic, whirling, free-for-all that was all about mashing the laugh button. Year three digs under the tree and opens the box on "Santaland"'s dozens of characters. Along with the guffaws, there's a beautiful, touching message about the true meaning of Christmas buried at the bottom of this stocking. | Watch Jason Parrish and director Chris Clavelli discuss the show on WINK-TV

Clavelli says he wants this year's show to feel like a holiday party, as if the writer had friends over and was relating his Macy's adventures. Tip: sit in the front row for chips, wine and a close-up view of the striptease - you won't be disappointed. | (Read the reviews from the 2009 production and the 2010 production.)

While the relaxed atmosphere sets the mood, the first half-hour is almost too low-key. The show works far better when the crowd gets pumped and rowdy; Thursday's second preview audience was very laid back. Maybe they needed real wine in those cups Parrish was passing around.

Unwrapping the distinct characters Sedaris crafted offers Parrish an opportunity to do more than spit back the buffet of bon mots in the script. Look for the crusty costume supervisor ("you're an elf and you're going to wear panties like an elf"). Or flirtatious elf Snowball "who just leads elves on." Or Parrish singing "Away in a Manger" as Billie Holiday.

Audiences feel those people - even if some of them get only a line or two. In previous years, they were quick, throwaway impressions done for cheap laughs. Now, they're characters - and even funnier because of it.

The show always turned a bright, uncomfortable, blinking light on the insanity that hits America as soon as the last wishbone was snapped. Parents screaming at kids to take the perfect holiday photo. Check. Long lines and panic attacks. Check. Temper tantrums. Check. A four-year-old taking a bathroom break in a fake snowbank. What?

Yet, the sharpest, most touching moment has nothing to do with presents, trees, lights or even elves. This year, it is all about the "Mystery Santa."

In the play's final minutes (on Christmas Eve at Macy's), Crumpet the Elf meets an unnamed Santa Claus who never asks what children want - and who manages to send kids and adults out of Santaland with joy in their hearts. Is it the "real" Santa? You never know, but with a quiet voice and a few gestures, Parrish captivates the audience into a sense of wonder and joy that you fervently believe it was Santa - and wish that miracles like this did happen in today's grim, recession-blasted world.

Christopher T. Simpson's set has dozens of hidden surprises. There's a "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree, plus a black Santa Claus (the show has a whole section on "chocolate" Santas). Last year's crucifix with a Santa cap returns - accompanied by a jolly parrot. Throughout the show, Parrish quaffs "wine" from a Santa goblet or jolly Santa mug.

"Santaland" reaches into its bulging bag and pulls out a raft of treats. Every character is a sparkling new gift. Every gift brings the promise of joyous laughter. Don't wait - unwrap "The Santaland Diaries" today. Jason Parrish proves irresistible as jolly green Crumpet the Elf, back for a third year of snark, sass and sleigh bells in the River District.

I am completely out of Santa adjectives. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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