Independent actors bring 'Santaland Diaries' to Ragtag

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 | 8:03 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — If you're looking for a world where Santa is an anagram for Satan, you can see a celebrity on your way to sit on Santa's lap and you get paid more for going through “elf training” than for selling retail, you might want to stop by Macy’s — at least, according to writer David Sedaris.

Putting a sarcastic slant on the season with its interpretation of "The Santaland Diaries," the Independent Actors Theatre opens its second production Wednesday of Sedaris' hilarious experiences working as an elf in a Macy's department store in New York.

If you go

What: "The Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello and the Independent Actors Theatre

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10 and Thursday, Dec. 11; 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13; 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17 and Thursday, Dec. 18

Where: Small Theater, Ragtag Cinema, 10 Hitt St.

Admission: $8

Sedaris first read his essay on NPR's Morning Edition in 1992. It is now performed across the country as a monologue adapted by Joe Mantello from Sedaris' snappy, firsthand account. Now that the show is in its second year in Columbia, director Charles Willis said it might become a holiday theater tradition.

"I think it would be a great thing to do,” Willis said. “I don't know how many times I have read and seen and heard this thing, and I still laugh hysterically.”

In the compact setting of Ragtag Cinema, Matthew Saltzberg, a doctoral student in theater at MU, will deliver the monologue straight to audience members, asking them to join in on the joke.

"A play like this is perfect for a very small, intimate space," Willis said. "He's right on top of you, you can look him straight in the eye, you can see every facial expression he's making, which is great for comedy."

Willis stressed that Saltzberg will not attempt to imitate Sedaris' distinct voice.

"The character is completely new and completely Matt's creation,” Willis said.

Despite this, Saltzberg has some things in common with Sedaris. He is originally from New York, which is where Sedaris found his work as a department store elf. .

Saltzberg’s dry, humorous attitude toward Christmas productions fits into the tone of the play.

“I don’t do cute, I don’t do holiday, I don’t do festive,” he said.

Aside from the stamina it takes to keep an audience engaged for an hour straight, Saltzberg said the biggest challenge of the production is making all the characters he portrays “distinct and separate.” Willis said Saltzberg must play upwards of 20 roles.

"When you're dealing with a larger cast, you can kind of feel like a traffic cop," Willis said. "Working with Matt, especially on a show like this where he is very engaged in the role and he has really made it his own, makes my job as director seem easy."

While “The Santaland Diaries” might provide more humor than holiday spirit, “It still has the message,” Saltzberg said. “There’s a little kernel of hope.”

Willis said the company wanted to offer something other than standard Christmas fare such as "The Nutcracker" or "A Christmas Carol."

"This isn't one of those deep, meaningful plays that people write articles and essays and books about," Willis said. "But at this particular point in the year, it is such a great time to show the humor of the holidays."

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