Tuesday, December 18, 2012
The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris with Martin Burke, Zach Theatre, November 24 - December 23
by Michael Meigs
The Zach says that this is the last time -- for a while -- they'll stage David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries. This is the 15th (!) season they've done it, so perhaps it's time for retirement, but if like me you've abstained from witnessing this Zach holiday ritual, it's time to swing on board before the caboose gets out of reach. Director Dave Steakley notes that Martin Burke has been doing his role as Crumpet the elf since the first production. Burke took a sabbatical of sorts in 2009 when African-American Espy Randolph did the show to appreciative reviews but the Austin originator was back again in 2010. For the 2012 run they're selling tickets only through the 23rd. On that Sunday Martin Burke does his last Crumpet the Elf at two shows, one at 2:30 p.m. and the other at 7 p.m.
Sedaris' text is smug and sarcastic, an appropriate antidote to all the sugar swirlilng in the air at this time of year, but Martin Burke himself is the reason to go see these sayanora performances. Burke has the fresh, guileless enthusiasm of a child, regardless of the scores -- no, hundreds -- of times that he has done this material. The contrast between that expressive, often beaming face and the cynical account of a season working as an elf-by-the-hour in Macy's Santland triggers your funny reflexes, and Burke has such happy charisma that he's instantly your friend. He's practically within reach, for the Zach's Whisenhut stage is a 150-seat theatre in the round.
Since the Macy's bit is intense but short, Zach and other companies that do this popular piece inevitably couple it with something else. The Zach production opens with a different Sedaris monologue, with Burke as an enthusiastic boy who discovers that his working class mother is friends through her job with a real, live workin' prostitute. The script is not so amusing in itself, but Burke's wide-eyed enthusiasm makes it pleasing. (The Playhouse in San Antonio is balancing its 'Santaland Diaries' featuring Jimmy Moore with 'Season's Greetings,' also by Sedaris, featuring Molly Cox -- slugging down booze from the bottle in the production promo photos.)
Zach's presentation is spiced up by some sly and somewhat naughty Christmas songs delivered femme fatale style by Amy Downing during the week and by Jill Blackwood on weekends, to the accompaniment of Jason Connor, the man with the accomplished fingers and unflappable presence of a lounge player who has smiled at it all.
I shared this experience with a friend from out of town, transplanted back to the United States after decades in Europe. He was particularly impressed by the warmth of Burke's performance and the man's ability to move our emotions in an instant from jolly mocking laughter to an unexpected pang of sympathy by capturing us with his actor's heart-catching sincerity. My friend vowed that this was a particularly American artistic characteristic and he found Burke marvelous at it.
Perhaps The Santaland Diaries has indeed arrived at the end of its useful life as a holiday chestnut and revenue raiser for 'Austin's theatre.' But we're blessed to have little big man Martin Burke still very much with us. He's scheduled to inhabit Elwood P. Dowd, friend of Harvey the rabbit, this coming May and June. You can be certain that the performance will be unique, perhaps with just the tiniest echo of Jimmy Stewart, but with a great deal of the charisma of Mr. Burke.
Click to view excerpts from the Zach's program for The Santaland Diaries with Martin Burke