The Santaland Diaries was initially sparked from David Sedaris spending a holiday season playing a Christmas elf in the SantaLand of a massive Macy's department store in New York City. The resulting essay is dryly funny and full of biting observations about how Americans treat strangers and their children around the holidays, but it also packs in just enough redemption and heart to keep things in the "spirit of the season."
This year, Derek Sitter and his Volcanic Theatre Pub took out a professional license on the one-man show version of the piece, meaning no other theater company in the area can produce the show simultaneously. Thus, Sitter has made Santaland quintessentially his own in a way completely unique to his artistic sensibilities. For years, Sitter has said that he feels like live theater shouldn't be something easily shrugged off after the curtain call. He believes theater should astonish the audience and leave them disturbed, uncomfortable, amazed.
Sitter has taken that manifesto and applied it to The Santaland Diaries in such a way as to create a gathering storm in Sedaris' words—making something snarky and witty into something that almost plays like a suicide note for the human spirit, while also allowing levity to sand down the jagged edges of the character Sitter has created.
Two things happen at the beginning of the show to let you know what kind of evening is about to commence. First, Sitter approaches the stage and gets set up behind his music stand, as his version of SLD is a hybrid of a reading and performance. He lets the audience know to please silence their cell phones, but also not to text or even look at the screen during the performance because (as he pulls out a hammer) if he sees a face in the audience lit up by a device, he will smash the shit out of it. He says his insurance will cover it and the mad gleam in his eye assures the audience he isn't playing.
Second, is his other disclaimer to the audience about the content of the evening: "If you're easily offended...fuck you." Creating this almost adversarial relationship with his audience gives the proceedings a sense of intensity a lot of live theater fails to capture and is also an incredibly ballsy way to begin a damn Christmas show.
Sitter then takes the audience on a tour of this depressed department store elf's psyche in ways hilarious, heartbreaking, and downright offensive.
"Since the story is basically a recount of his experiences as an elf in the largest store in the world and the valuable lesson he learned, I couldn't help but think of him as a 'Self-Help Guru' doing a Ted Talk," Sitter says. "I had recently been released from a five-day stint in the psych ward—after performing Zoo Story—and there was a lot on my mind about a man 'beginning to lose it.' So, I saw him as a person wanting to genuinely help people with his hysterical yet enlightening story."
Throughout the 90-minute piece, Sitter (with help from his bartender and Don Tompos in the booth controlling the slides) runs the gamut from the deeply personal (Sitter's wife Jeanne had open-heart surgery this last Monday), to poking fun at Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Ann Coulter, and more.
The show is at times laugh-out-loud funny and shockingly dark and depressing with slides ranging from bloody tampons and dented-in skull cavities to Sitter's lovely daughter smiling in front of a Christmas tree. It feels like the work of a man coming to terms with himself and the world he lives in. "This time my perspective on everything has changed," Sitter says. "It taught me what's truly significant in one's life, and that's love, life, and family. The story I tell expresses that pretty clearly now. It's the whole damn point now."
The Santaland Diaries
7:30 pm. Thursday, Dec. 10-Saturday, Dec. 19
Volcanic Theatre Pub, 70 SW Century Dr.