Delightful not frightful: ‘The Santaland Diaries’ and Trey McIntyre Project

A right jolly old elf: Jim Lichtscheidl in "The Santaland Diaries" at Portland Center Stage/Patrick Weishampel

I almost went to see Lars von Trier’s ode to the end of the planet, “Melancholia,” but I’m saving that one for a day when the holiday season seems truly unbearable. Instead, I spent the weekend in jollier company, thinking about comedy.

I know. My least favorite period in the late comic George Carlin’s career was when he spent several months (at least) going around explaining jokes to everyone. Just for the record? That was NOT funny. And even though I have no obligation to be funny here, which regular visitors already know (no jokes, please!), I’m not about to do an autopsy on a bunch of David Sedaris lines, honest.

I did see Portland Center Stage’s version of “The Santaland Diaries,” though, the stage adaptation by Joe Mantello of an essay by Sedaris about his own Season in Hell, working as an elf in a Manhattan Macy’s store. But first I dropped in on the Trey McIntyre Project, which isn’t a comedy dance group, exactly, but does reflect McIntyre’s wry sense of humor — swans were neither a’swimming nor dying in the three dances on the program. So, yes, maybe we’ll detect a few “elements of comedy” in the next, 2.2 minutes?

[box]Editor’s Note: This appeared originally on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts and Life page.[/box]

Trey McIntyre Project, White Bird: For example, is it funny when a dance company dances slowly and lyrically to Tommy James and The Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover”? I’m afraid it is! Not like screamingly funny, but it’s hard not to smile: It’s been several decades since I last sat through “Crimson and clover, over and over.” Wait, you’re not doing it right. It’s “clo-o-ver, ov-ah and o-o-vah.”  In the cool light of day, I now wish they had danced to Tommy James’ first big hit, “Hanky Panky,” but maybe McIntyre will get around to that later.

The point is that McIntyre makes Tommy James work on several levels, most importantly the choreographic one. Although his company is based in ballet, it doesn’t do ballets, really, in the old-fashioned sense. Instead, McIntyre generates highly inventive little movement worlds for each of his dances that fit the music.

In the first dance on the program, “In Dreams,” he took on a medley by rock-a-billy god Roy Orbison, but he didn’t spend a second of time playing off swing dancing of any sort. Instead, he created his own highly syncopated solos, duets and unison dances that didn’t enact the drama of the narrative in the songs, but didn’t entirely turn its back on it, either, fun but not disrespectful.

That course prevailed through “Gravity Heroes,” which teamed Tommy James, Antony and The Johnson, The Sex Pistols and Benjamin Britten, and “The Sweeter End,” danced to songs performed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. There were little visual jokes, an inexplicable (to me at least) bashing of pinatas in the shape of ponies, some steamy blues dancing and some dance-making of a very high order, restless and unpredictable.

Also, difficult. McIntyre doesn’t back off from challenging the company, and his dancers are terrific, top to bottom. They can glide effortlessly and punch out the explosive bits in alternate sections of the same section of the same dance, hitting the beat of the songs and the choreography with the greatest possible amplification. These guys are good.

“The Santaland Diaries,” Portland Center Stage: David Sedaris has grown tired of “The Santaland Diaries” or maybe just the idea that it has become as much a holiday staple as the Santalands that it mocks? I don’t know, I’m just passing on what I read:  “I don’t like the story to begin with,” he told TimeOut Chicago in 2008. “It doesn’t do a thing for me.”

But what about the royalties, I said out loud as I read that line, though I really don’t know a thing about his financial arrangements on the play. Ken Kesey sold the stage and film rights to “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” for what turned out to be a pittance, though he didn’t think that at the time.

This is the third year of Center Stage’s version, and the crowd didn’t seem tired of it at all. As I left the theater, a young woman was going into some length with her companions about the various productions and Sedaris and the nature of comedy. OK, I made that last bit up. Anyway, she did enjoy Jim Lichtscheidl’s performance in the one-man show, and so did I.

I especially liked how he could go from playing “depressed” (any man recounting his time playing an elf at Macy’s would be a little depressed, right?) to playing “goofy,” and immediately I wanted to see his Bluntschli in “Arms and the Man” and his own one-man show, “KNOCK!”, both of which he performed in Minnesota, his home base. So, yes, he is perfect for “The Santaland Diaries.”

The play has “elements of comedy.” It has trenchant observations about members of the public under the stress of the holidays. It takes a withering look at the foibles of the writer himself. It has impressions. It has a VERY silly costume. And, frankly, yes, playing an elf in a Macy’s Santaland!

I can understand why Sedaris may have turned on his own creation, though. Written in 1992 (and performed famously on NPR), it has some references that date it (Phil Collins, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and it’s not as punchy as stand-up comedy these days has become — it began its life as a written essay, after all.

But one aspect of it isn’t dated any more. In 1992 the country was going through the recession that helped get Bill Clinton elected President, and that was one of the reasons that Sedaris had taken the job. He needed it. It wasn’t “research.” And in our own recession-rocked time, it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a young soap-opera besotted man arriving in New York and clutching at any possible job.  Because as he says in the play, worse than the idea of getting the job is the idea that he wouldn’t get it.

There are a few chilly moments like that in “The Santaland Diaries,” but rather than destroy the flow, they help the play transcend some of the dated references (some of which aren’t exactly politically correct). I guess comedy can be funny that way.

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