Shakespeare & Company: Elf is retiring for now

Friday November 30, 2012

LENOX -- The third time, they say, is the charm. For "The Santaland Diaries" at Shakespeare & Company, the third time also is the end Š for now.

"The Santaland Diaries" is returning to Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre for the third consecutive year beginning with a preview performance at 7:30 tonight and running Fri day and Sat ur day evenings and Sa turday and Sun day afternoons through Dec. 30. Press opening is Satur day.

However, says Shakes peare & Company artistic director Tony Simotes, who is di recting "The Santaland Diaries" for the third time, it is time to put the one-actor play away, at least for a while.

"We’ll store it, put it away for a while, see what we can come up with next year," Simotes said during a re cent interview in the Bernstein lobby, where he was joined by David Josef Hansen, this year’s Santaland elf.

"The Santaland Diaries" is based on David Sedaris’ edgy essay recounting his experiences as a Macy’s Christmas Santaland elf -- an experience in which he sees human nature exhibited at its worst but also, as it turns out, with flashes of its redemptive best.

"It’s like taking a picture and it all looks perfect," Hansen said. "But you don’t know what’s going on behind that ‘perfection.’ "

Joe Mantello’s stage adaptation of Sedaris’ essay comes with no directions. "It’s completely open to interpretation," says Simotes, who has set "Santaland Diaries" in a comfortable New York apartment (elegantly designed by Patrick Brennan) where the narrator is getting ready to host his annual Christmas Eve party. Sedaris’ tale becomes a reminiscence offered by the narrator during the course of his party.

Simotes says he is still finding new things in the play, "things," he says, "I haven’t seen before; patterns and imagery I hadn’t noticed before."

That should come as no surprise. Each year, Simotes has directed a different actor -- Peter Davenport in 2010, Ryan Winkles last year, this year Hansen. Each one, Simotes says, has brought different ornamentation to a narrative that exposes the grit behind the holiday glitter at Macy’s Santaland.

"All three actors Š are different in physicality and personality," Simotes said, "from Peter’s urbane sophistication to Ryan’s elfish twinkle. David brings a kind of clown temperament, a quirkiness to the play. He brings a whole new skill set. Except for the party setting, it really is completely different."

The Boston-based Hansen is no stranger to Shakespeare & Company. He worked with Simotes in all three productions of "The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)." He last appeared at Shake speare & Company in Daniela Varon’s 2005 production of "The Taming of the Shrew."

"It’s so nice to have David back," Simotes said.

"Santaland Diaries" is Hansen’s first one-actor show.

The challenge, he says, lies in "trying to weave (the narrator’s) thought process together; trying to get the ideas to work.

"When you’re in a play with other actors, you work off them," Hansen said. "Here, I’m trying to find my voice in this character-- why am I telling this story?"

"(The production’s setting) captures a night when everything is right and David’s character tells a story of a time when everything is not right," Simotes said.

In directing this play, Simotes says, "you don’t want to get too deep into a joke but there are subtle patterns here I hadn’t noticed before and questions I hadn’t asked before because I hadn’t seen them."

The audience is a factor here; more than a factor, a character, in essence, the party guests. Simotes has encouraged Hansen to interact, improvise at times. But the audience isn’t a presence during rehearsals which means, Simotes says, that "you have to imagine the audience, imagine their laughter, imagine their response.

"As an actor, you’re out there and things are happening that aren’t normal. That’s the process of acting. You learn as an actor to take the bumps and bounces of the audience."

For all its cynical impulses, Simotes and Hansen believe there is a generosity of spirit that emerges by the end of "Santaland Diaries."

"The fact is," Hansen said, "that for all he sees and questions while working at Macy’s, he does stay to the end. He sees the experience through. And I think that’s because he does see the good in people."

"I think there is a kind of empathy that develops, something he sees (that makes it worthwhile)," Simotes said.

For Simotes, the third time around with "Santaland Diaries" also has been worthwhile.

"It’s been fun putting this together again," he said, somewhat wistfully. "It’s been fun to walk into that apartment again."


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