Arts » Performing Arts

America Through Elfin Eyes

And a deft Def at the Belk

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Beneath the jolly Santas saturating the malls, the lawns, the marketing promotions, and the TV specials of the season, can there be a dark underbelly to Christmas in America? Perhaps not. But readers of David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries know that there's an impish, subversive, and utterly realistic alternative to the saccharine jollity.

Legions of fanatics have bonded to Sedaris through his books -- and through his distinctive voice, regularly broadcast in all its wimpy glory on NPR. For the next two weeks, Sedaris fans can luxuriate as the beloved radio persona is recreated onstage in a one-man show starring CL's reigning Actor of the Year, Mark Scarboro.

Actor's Theatre of Charlotte will kick off their 2003-04 season with the stage version of Santaland. Delays in completing construction of ATC's new space on Stonewall Street have obliged the company to stage their Yuletide offering at Theatre Charlotte.

Although Scarboro and ATC have never performed at the Queens Road barn before, Santaland director Dennis Delamar is intimately acquainted with the turf. But neither Scarboro nor Delamar has navigated the unique pitfalls of a one-man show until now. The pressures of being out there all alone -- and learning all those lines -- are just the beginning.

"The challenge for me in a one-man show is how to make this interesting and hold the audience's attention," says Delamar. "I'm trying to help the actor do that, but make it visually interesting, physically interesting as well -- without doing too much. I think we're getting the right balance."

Transplanted to stage, the Sedaris Diaries become a series of connected monologues chronicling our hero's arrival in New York and his desperate pursuit of work, all leading to his term of service at Macy's department store. Amid the holiday crush, he spends his workdays as Santa's trusty elf.

"Then he proceeds to tell us about all the obnoxious customers and the different types of Santas and the parents and the children," Delamar relates. "It's looking at us, America. Also, it's a real fresh look at the Yuletide season and all this crass commercialism at Christmastime."

The tall, wiry Scarboro won't be mimicking the familiar Sedaris voice. But Delamar hopes to turn Scarboro's non-elfin attributes to advantage by imaginatively altering the actor's surroundings.

"Everything's huge to give him that elf-dwarf look," Delamar confides. "So Santa's chair is like a Lily Tomlin chair."

If your erudition doesn't include vintage Laugh-In episodes, that would be a chair tall and wide enough to make a grown-up look like a 5-year-old. Holiday gifts, we're told, will be large enough to sustain the same illusion.

Scarboro's exploits in the past two years have included a malign tiger in Children's Theatre's Jungalbook, a notorious hate murderer in Actor's Theatre's The Laramie Project, and a flamboyantly creepy homophobe, Cosmo, in BareBones Theatre Group's The Pitchfork Disney. So while Delamar and designer Julie Hutto are busily supersizing the scenery, Scarboro will be downsizing his formidable stage presence.

"Mark has meshed with this David Sedaris wit -- as I knew he would -- in a lovely way," Delamar claims. "What I've tried to help him do is enjoy telling us the story, enjoy our being there. I want the person in the audience to feel like this guy is talking just to me -- with an edge of irony and sarcasm. He has fun doing it, and he's just going to be adorable."

Def Jams the Belk
When Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam premiered last year in New York, it quickly attracted an atypical Broadway crowd: young, multi-ethnic, and enthusiastically vocal. Here in Charlotte last Monday, the crowd was also atypical for a Belk Theater touring production, predominantly African-American and boisterously stirred by the passion of the poets.

The enthusiasm was justified. Seven of the nine original Def poets from Simmons' Tony Award-winning production have signed on for the national tour. In the slots vacated by witty white scribe Steve Colman and the unique Asian-Jamaican lesbian Staceyann Chin, Simmons now has Nigeria native Bassey Ikpi. With the demographics for Simmons' Def series on HBO -- mirrored by the sponsorship of WPEG Power 98 here in Charlotte -- the producer made a savvy call. Our PAC was not nearly as prescient. The box office was overwhelmed by an avalanche of walk-up trade, and the start of the show was delayed until 8:16pm. Action was halted about 20 minutes into the show to allow an additional throng of latecomers to be seated.

During the 11 months since I saw the show in New York, some of the poetry slammers have refined their delivery skills. Georgia Me is funnier in "Full Figure Potential" confessing her addiction to Little Debbies and more compelling in "Hit Like a Man" urging abused wives to break free.

Beau Sia, the Oklahoma-born Asian, still wears his loud pink sweater. But he has toned down his egotism, improving the effect of "Totally Xxxtreme," adding hangdog comedy to "Love," and making his powerful "The Asians Are Coming" a more appealing manifesto. Black Ice has mellowed a tad. His "410 Days in the Life" is still an incendiary, in-your-face rant, with less gangsta anger and more sermonizing spirit -- small comfort to audience members unprepared for his streams of profanity and showerings of the N-word. But his climactic "Front Page" drew the most fervid ovation of the night.

Uneasiness wafted over the crowd last Christmas when the Palestinian Brooklynite, Suheir Hammad, expressed her outrage at Arab profiling at airports -- and in people's minds -- in the wake of 9/11. So her "Mike Check" has improved with age as we've moved beyond paranoia to reality. Amid poets who take themselves and their ethnicities so seriously, the self-deprecating humor of Poetri is still a welcome oasis. Timing of the roly-poly poet's "Sometimes I Pretend I'm Michael Jackson" is less fortuitous these days, but the outrageous conspiracy theory of "Krispy Kreme" and the mock plaint of "Money" were the evening's comedy hits.

Resolutely spicy and staunchly Latina, Mayda Del Valle took us on an aromatic tour of her mom's kitchen ("In the Cocina") and salsa jazz ("Tito Puente"). She even came close to upstaging Black Ice with her fiery "Descendency," for me the high point of the original Broadway show.

It was great to see a full house at Belk for such edgy, provocative fare. Let's hope that this was the wake-up call that brings us more of the same -- at theaters all around Charlotte.

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