POSTED ON DECEMBER 9, 2009:
Holiday Laughs and Lessons
American Theatre Co. brings a cult classic and a classic classic to the PAC
Tribute to Mom. Steven Fendt, assistant director at the PAC, reprises a role he played 17 years ago — the Ghost of Christmas Present. “I just lost my mother this past year, and she was a big fan of Christmas,” Fendt said. “When Kitty called, I thought this would be a good way to honor my mom and her love for Christmas.”
It's difficult to have any dignity when your work uniform consists of a green velvet jumpsuit, a pointed cap, candy cane tights and bells. Especially when you're a 49-year-old man faced with the realization that the only thing worse than applying for a job as an elf at Macy's SantaLand is the very real possibility that you might not get it.
If, though, you do get the job and then write a witty, sardonic essay about your experience that gets discovered by Ira Glass, played on National Public Radio and launches your career as an essayist and humorist, then, well, maybe you get a smidgen of that dignity back.
Just a smidgen, though.
David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries has become something of a cult classic among holiday-weary NPR listeners. It first aired on NPR in 1992 and then appeared in the author's book, "Barrel Fever," in 1994.
Two years later, actor Joe Mantello worked with Sedaris to transform the essay into a one-act, one-man show, which Tulsa's American Theatre Company has performed at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center for the last three years.
Veteran actor Mike Pryor (best known as Seymour in ATC's Little Shop of Horror's, Riff Raff in the company's version of The Rocky Horror Show and Frankie in Tulsa Repertory Musicals' Forever Plaid) has starred in the show each year, and Randy Whalen has directed.
While it's easy to write the show off as an anti-Christmas play -- Sedaris' dry, monotone radio telling could easily affirm this assumption -- Pryor's portrayal of Crumpet (Sedaris' elfin persona) is more humanistic. Crumpet didn't start out hating Christmas. If you had to spend six weeks at the North Pole, forcing merriment for crying children and their snot-nosed parents, cleaning up puke and putting up with self-righteous Santas, well, you might have a few issues with Christmas as well.
Pryor, as well as human, is also hilarious.
As you settle into your seat, expect him to come by offering you a paper cup of eggnog, mingling and being his generally merry self. As the lights dim, though, and Christmas music begins to play overhead -- the really annoying kind, apparently only available to department stores -- he morphs into the man who will become Crumpet and begins the hour-and-a-half story of how he came to be a Christmas elf at Macy's.
He animatedly tells his tell, acting out, not just his character, but the others he meets as well. His mimicry of them is a large part of what makes the show so funny. He has no problem holding the audience's rapt attention for the length of the show. In fact, I wouldn't mind if it were a couple hours longer. Pryor is just that fun to watch.
Even when he wasn't on the stage, Pryor kept us giggling.
Whalen ably directs the play, making good use of the entire stage -- and much of the audience -- throughout its course. Those moments of audience interaction were especially appreciated by the nearly full house.
There is very nearly a moral point to The Santaland Diaries, but, at the very end, Sedaris catches himself, and what you're left with is a funny alternative to the more traditional holiday fare.
I wouldn't even say the show is an alternative to ATC's 20-plus-year classic A Christmas Carol, but rather, an addition, a new holiday tradition in Tulsa.
The show continues Thursday, Dec. 10 through Friday, Dec. 12 at 8:15pm in the PAC's Liddy Doenges Theatre, 110 E. Second St. Tickets are $24-$30 at www.tulsapac.com.
If you're looking for something to take the whole family to, ATC presents A Christmas Carol for the 34th year.
ATC's version was adapted and composed by Robert Odle and Richard Averill from Charles Dickens' 1843 tale. It boasts some of Tulsa's best actors and an elaborate set and costumes.
Brooklyn native Anthony Santelmo Jr. takes on the role of Scrooge this year, while Larry Huddleston plays Bob Cratchit, Trisha Taylor plays Mrs. Cratchit and Anderson Acebo and Blake Simpson alternate the role of Tiny Tim.
Kelli Schingen plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Steven Fendt, assistant director at the PAC, reprises a role he played 17 years ago -- the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Fendt played the role in 1989, 1990 and 1991 when his job at the PAC was ticket office manager. When his full-time job left little time for acting (although he did take on roles here and there), he abandoned the role of Christmas Present.
This year, though, ATC's producing artistic director Kitty Roberts asked Fendt to reprise the role, he quickly accepted.
"I just lost my mother this past year, and she was a big fan of Christmas," Fendt said. "When Kitty called, I thought this would be a good way to honor my mom and her love for Christmas."
Fendt said Christmas was always the best time of year for his family, with lots of time spent with relatives and frequent Christmas Day visits from Santa, who "forgot a present."
A Christmas Carol is another important holiday tradition, Fendt said.
"Whenever you think of Christmas, you always think of A Christmas Carol," he said. "And you always think of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
"You really think about what Christmas means when you see all the stuff around you, what's happening in the present."
Fendt said his jovial disposition naturally lends itself to portraying Christmas Present,
"It's a very easy role for me to play because of the fact I'm always happy," he said. "What it means to me is that I can actually portray this character as someone that is acting and thinking about Christmas in the present since he only lives for one day, and then he becomes Christmas Past.
"He's got one day to live his life. He's so full of energy and giving and letting everyone know it's something that should be done year-round and not just at Christmastime.
"It would be wonderful to make sure everyone gets that message."
A Christmas Carol plays in the PAC's John H. Williams Theatre Thursday, Dec. 10 through Wednesday, Dec. 23 at various times. Tickets are $24 to $30, with discounts for children. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the PAC's Web site.
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