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The Santaland Diaries: more tidings of comfort and joy

Making the yuletide gay at Diversionary Theatre

The Santaland Diaries: Crumpet struggles not to crack.
The Santaland Diaries: Crumpet struggles not to crack.

Last week, I mentioned the various ways that A Christmas Carol has been tweaked and updated by San Diego theaters in an effort to keep the story from getting lost in its own comfortable familiarity. Such is the danger of tradition. But there is, as yet, no need for such shenanigans with David Sedaris’ much more recent traditional Christmas narrative, The Santaland Diaries, which finishes up its holiday run this weekend at Diversionary Theater. It’s a dramatized version of Sedaris’ famous 1999 essay on working as a Macy’s Christmas elf named Crumpet, and it’s still new enough that actor Wil Bethmann was just able to play it straight, as it were.

Past Event

The Santaland Diaries

(Bethmann was plenty elfin in both manner and mien, but maybe a titch too fit and handsome to play the sad sack Sedaris describes himself as. He’s closer to how one might imagine Snowball, the adorable elf who, it turns out, just likes to lead other elves — and Santas — on. And while he was able to put across Sedaris’ helpless, deadpan horror at both life and Christmas gone awry, I’m not sure I believed him when he told me he wasn’t a good person. Maybe I’m not supposed to believe Sedaris, either; I’m not sure.)

Besides, I’m not sure Sedaris’ story is all that interested in avoiding comfort. There are plenty of uncomfortable situations described, but they mostly have to do with wretched normies. Things like this: “Tonight I saw a woman slap and shake a crying child. She yelled, ‘Rachel, get up on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about’…It’s not about the child, or Santa, or Christmas, or anything but the parent’s idea of a world they cannot make work for them.” The parents Crumpet describes are entitled, celebrity obsessed, self-centered, racist, and sexist. Diversionary bills itself as as San Diego’s only LGBT theater; how could this testimony from an outsider witness — so close, and yet a world away — not serve as balm to those who had suffered the straight world’s opprobrium?

Well, but that’s the way it was… I dunno. The ending pretty clearly wandered into the realm of happy fantasy, to the point of granting children the same wonderstruck state — “center of attention” — that Sedaris longs for at the show’s opening. (The kids find themselves beloved by parents and Santa; Sedaris wants to be treasured by the people who make One Life to Live.) And that got me wondering about earlier bits: would the sort of dad who stands in line for hours to bring his 10-year-old son to Santa in a New York City department store really say, “Get him a woman, Santa, a woman!” before requesting “a broad with big tits” for himself? Maybe. But Sedaris has admitted to making stuff up for the sake of his stories. I didn’t buy “big tits” Dad, but I could definitely see how he worked for the narrative.

Diversionary’s set was its own sort of Santaland: oversized candy canes, oversized presents, and Christmas trees with decorations that coordinated in a kind of gentle light show. It set the scene for Bethmann’s zippy performance without getting in his way. And it served to highlight the use of a simple, unadorned model of a house — a home, rather — that provided the performance with a surprisingly poignant final image.

Linda Libby’s HoliGay Storytime

After the show, around 20 attendees gathered downstairs in the lobby for Linda Libby’s HoliGay Storytime. Libby took to the tiny stage, reminded us that “I sound so much better when you have a drink,” and invited us to join her, “to read a few stories, sing a few songs, have a nice little contemporary connection with our chosen family. To celebrate ourselves.”

She took up her guitar and led us in singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” before reading Brian Moylan’s essay from New York Magazine on The Gay Subtext of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — the Christmas TV special. (The piece hailed from 2016 — years before Jennifer Finney Boylan’s recent New York Times piece on the same subject — and did a remarkably thorough job, right down to branding Yukon Cornelius a bear. Jules Bass of Rankin/Bass is still alive; I wonder what he would make of the reading?) She crooned a little bit of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” before reading “My Son’s Christmas Dress” from Lori Duron’s blog Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son. “I sat on the floor removing price tags while he tore off his ‘school clothes,’ which he wears as a disguise when out in society so that people will think he’s all boy.” And she sang “O Christmas Tree” before reading a news story about the Latinx lesbian couple who donated the tree for Rockefeller Center in 2018.

Then Libby read Christmas wishes from the audience. Several asked for Trump’s downfall, others for sex, affordable housing and health care, “my baby to be born on time,” a winning lottery ticket, more wine, bedazzled nipple clamps, peace and love for all... She closed with Randi Reitan’s 2011 HuffPost entry, “A Christmas Letter to My Gay Son,” which lamented that she could not give him equality, despite all her efforts to do so. “I want to see you open it on Christmas Eve and with great joy live with it all your days.” Some wept; others consoled the weeping.

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The Santaland Diaries: Crumpet struggles not to crack.
The Santaland Diaries: Crumpet struggles not to crack.

Last week, I mentioned the various ways that A Christmas Carol has been tweaked and updated by San Diego theaters in an effort to keep the story from getting lost in its own comfortable familiarity. Such is the danger of tradition. But there is, as yet, no need for such shenanigans with David Sedaris’ much more recent traditional Christmas narrative, The Santaland Diaries, which finishes up its holiday run this weekend at Diversionary Theater. It’s a dramatized version of Sedaris’ famous 1999 essay on working as a Macy’s Christmas elf named Crumpet, and it’s still new enough that actor Wil Bethmann was just able to play it straight, as it were.

Past Event

The Santaland Diaries

(Bethmann was plenty elfin in both manner and mien, but maybe a titch too fit and handsome to play the sad sack Sedaris describes himself as. He’s closer to how one might imagine Snowball, the adorable elf who, it turns out, just likes to lead other elves — and Santas — on. And while he was able to put across Sedaris’ helpless, deadpan horror at both life and Christmas gone awry, I’m not sure I believed him when he told me he wasn’t a good person. Maybe I’m not supposed to believe Sedaris, either; I’m not sure.)

Besides, I’m not sure Sedaris’ story is all that interested in avoiding comfort. There are plenty of uncomfortable situations described, but they mostly have to do with wretched normies. Things like this: “Tonight I saw a woman slap and shake a crying child. She yelled, ‘Rachel, get up on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about’…It’s not about the child, or Santa, or Christmas, or anything but the parent’s idea of a world they cannot make work for them.” The parents Crumpet describes are entitled, celebrity obsessed, self-centered, racist, and sexist. Diversionary bills itself as as San Diego’s only LGBT theater; how could this testimony from an outsider witness — so close, and yet a world away — not serve as balm to those who had suffered the straight world’s opprobrium?

Well, but that’s the way it was… I dunno. The ending pretty clearly wandered into the realm of happy fantasy, to the point of granting children the same wonderstruck state — “center of attention” — that Sedaris longs for at the show’s opening. (The kids find themselves beloved by parents and Santa; Sedaris wants to be treasured by the people who make One Life to Live.) And that got me wondering about earlier bits: would the sort of dad who stands in line for hours to bring his 10-year-old son to Santa in a New York City department store really say, “Get him a woman, Santa, a woman!” before requesting “a broad with big tits” for himself? Maybe. But Sedaris has admitted to making stuff up for the sake of his stories. I didn’t buy “big tits” Dad, but I could definitely see how he worked for the narrative.

Diversionary’s set was its own sort of Santaland: oversized candy canes, oversized presents, and Christmas trees with decorations that coordinated in a kind of gentle light show. It set the scene for Bethmann’s zippy performance without getting in his way. And it served to highlight the use of a simple, unadorned model of a house — a home, rather — that provided the performance with a surprisingly poignant final image.

Linda Libby’s HoliGay Storytime

After the show, around 20 attendees gathered downstairs in the lobby for Linda Libby’s HoliGay Storytime. Libby took to the tiny stage, reminded us that “I sound so much better when you have a drink,” and invited us to join her, “to read a few stories, sing a few songs, have a nice little contemporary connection with our chosen family. To celebrate ourselves.”

She took up her guitar and led us in singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” before reading Brian Moylan’s essay from New York Magazine on The Gay Subtext of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — the Christmas TV special. (The piece hailed from 2016 — years before Jennifer Finney Boylan’s recent New York Times piece on the same subject — and did a remarkably thorough job, right down to branding Yukon Cornelius a bear. Jules Bass of Rankin/Bass is still alive; I wonder what he would make of the reading?) She crooned a little bit of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” before reading “My Son’s Christmas Dress” from Lori Duron’s blog Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son. “I sat on the floor removing price tags while he tore off his ‘school clothes,’ which he wears as a disguise when out in society so that people will think he’s all boy.” And she sang “O Christmas Tree” before reading a news story about the Latinx lesbian couple who donated the tree for Rockefeller Center in 2018.

Then Libby read Christmas wishes from the audience. Several asked for Trump’s downfall, others for sex, affordable housing and health care, “my baby to be born on time,” a winning lottery ticket, more wine, bedazzled nipple clamps, peace and love for all... She closed with Randi Reitan’s 2011 HuffPost entry, “A Christmas Letter to My Gay Son,” which lamented that she could not give him equality, despite all her efforts to do so. “I want to see you open it on Christmas Eve and with great joy live with it all your days.” Some wept; others consoled the weeping.

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