Pity poor Sarah Palin.   

According to her new book, “Good Tidings and Great Joy,” the failed Republican stooge is distraught over the fact Americans are losing another war, this time on their own soil – the war on Christmas.  To loosely summarize the “book of Sarah,” every time the words “happy holidays” replace “Merry Christmas” Christ puts a new name on Santa’s naughty list and another Christmas angel gets lynched on a holiday tree, most likely by liberal terrorists hell-bent on destroying Palin’s idealized version of festive American traditions.  

If Sarah wanted to get the real scoop on the war she’d look no further than the Tottering Biped Theatre staging of The Santaland Diaries, coming to the Molson Canadian Studio at Hamilton Place December 13th.  The production is set in the ultimate Christmas war zone – the Santaland display at New York’s iconic Macy’s department store.  The story’s main protagonist is the irreverent “Crumpet,” the “quintessential elf gone bad” who recounts tales of holiday horror and survival during an endless assault from shoppers and their children.  The play is based on the radio essay by David Sedaris, an American humourist who just happens to have an admirer in the guise of Santaland Diaries director Trevor Copp.

“First of all, (Sedaris) is a bit of a hero of mine,” said Copp, who is also the artistic director of the Burlington-based Tottering Biped Theatre. “He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, a huge American humourist – he’s a dry wit who doesn’t try to be funny, but manages to be through the total honesty of telling you what he sees.” 

Sedaris was a virtual unknown in American literary circles before receiving acclaim for the essay, which he first read on National Public Radio on December 23, 1992. The anecdotes that formed the basis of the piece were entirely biographical, gleaned from Sedaris’ stint working as a seasonal Macy’s Christmas elf. The popularity of his essay gave Sedaris the break he needed, and he went on to publish several successful collections of humour including 1994’s Barrel Fever and 1997’s Holidays on Ice. However, Copp says the lasting appeal of The Santaland Diaries is the result of its frank depiction of everything that’s wrong with the season.

“It’s an examination of what Christmas has become, and calling it out,” explains Copp. “That’s the simple appeal of it. In a season where you’re saturated by the kitschy version, the commercialized version of Christmas, someone is stepping outside and saying ‘this is what’s really going on,’ pointing it out. He’s managed to tell me a Christmas story that reminds me of what Christmas really is – this is not the Nutcracker, it’s not A Christmas Carol. This is the Christmas I recognize.”

The starring role of Crumpet the Elf went to actor and stand-up comic Robin Archer. It’s a challenging one for any performer, given the fact The Santaland Diaries is a soliloquy that succeeds or fails based on audience reaction to the actor.  Copps says casting Archer was an easy choice to make.

“Once I heard him read a couple of pages, I knew he was the only one,” recalls Copps. “It’s simply a style of wit, of humour, you either have or you don’t. Robin has it. He’s a master at keeping audiences with you. ”

Directing a one-man show might seem to be an easy chore for a director. Copps acknowledges as much, but he is quick to point out the difference between his responsibilities with this show and directing a full cast performance.

“This is a different degree of collaboration,” he explains. “From a director’s point of view, it is a bit of a gift. My job is staying out of Robin Archer’s way. The actor takes it very seriously. He comes at this so strong. I’m just guiding him, keeping him going in the right direction.”

Despite the reverence held for the original essay, The Santaland Diaries did generate some controversy when it was suggested Sedaris had fabricated some of the facts about his experiences working at Macy’s. Copps says the controversy has no impact on the lasting quality of the story.

“I’m quite disinterested in the actual facts involved in the story.  As a writer (Sedaris) is taking his experiences and shaping them into something I can recognize. If he’s shaping the story, it directly happened to him, I accept it. He’s delivered such a real story that it doesn’t have to have all happened.”

While Sedaris avoided any of the religious imagery associated with the Christmas season, there is a degree of redemption reflected in The Santaland Diaries according to Copp.

“What you see on stage is an arch,” he explained. “A different person at the beginning than he is at the end. There’s a transformation. By the end of the pieces he realizes it’s Christmas, he’s working with Santa, he’s inspiring people. It’s nice, but not a sugary sweet resolution. He has his brush with something redeeming. It’s not a Hollywood ending.”

The Santaland Diaries can be seen December 13th on-stage in the Molson Canadian Theatre at Hamilton Place.

by David DeRocco