Review: Ryan Winkles Sparkles and Fizzes as Crumpet in Santaland Diaries (Shakespeare & Co) to Dec. 30

Review: The mirth and jokes bubble over in Shakespeare & Company’s latest version of the Santaland Diaries. Banished is the mawkish sentimentality of commercial Christmas, replaced instead by the story of a Macy’s elf dealing with the reality of working retail at this time of year.

It’s a very different kind of holiday show, with both the “feel of time gone by with today’s edgy, fast-paced, tension-filled 24/7 lifestyle,” says director Tony Simotes in his program notes.

Instead of a neatly wrapped morality tale like A Christmas Carol, or a sweet dream like The Nutracker, Santaland Diaries is one person’s recounting of his “Christmas from Hell.” In the hands of Shakespeare & Company it turns out to be one delightful barrel of laughs.

This is the second year the play is being staged. Last year it starred a wonderful Peter Davenport, and this year Ryan Winkles has assumed the role of Crumpet the Elf. Winkles take on Crumpet is very different. While on stage, Davenport always maintained a bit of dignity and reserve. His Crumpet was, underneath it all, elegant.

Winkles just lets loose, and as a result the laughs come faster and louder this year. Dignity be damned, full speed ahead!

If you have heard about the rock and roll school of acting but have never seen it, live on stage, now is your chance. Not only that, but live theatre is in the real 3-D. There’s no app for it. It’s so real you feel like you could reach out and touch the actors, especially if you sit in the front row. Theatre can be pretty up close and personal, and last night the young people in the audience were having the time of their lives. Winkles bribed some of them with candy canes to suck on during the show. It worked.

In this freshened production there’s more fun on stage in Lenox than in any dozen ersatz Santas, their fake ho ho ho’s being no match for the real deep down, from-the-gut ha, ha ha’s.

That’s not saying that the classics aren’t part of this season. They are timeless. But they are about the people who lived in the 19th Century.

While Santaland Diaries is about us, and is set in our own time.

There are two reasons that this is a winning evening out. First and foremost is Ryan WInkles, who has created the most hilarious and campy Crumpet the Elf ever. The success is as much the direction too, and it is obvious that director Tony Simotes has dug even deeper into the David Sedaris essay and Joe Montello script than before. Together, the pair somehow find more laughs than were there originally.

Simotes style of directing has Winkles careening around that stage like the metal ball of a pinball machine, with both Crumpet the Elf and the furniture itself flying across the stage, pillows askew.

Ryan WInkles acting is all the more impressive when you realize that he is telling his stream-of-consciousness tale at machine gun speed, while engaging in the theatrical equivalent of a ninety minute aerobic workout. He is simply amazing to watch, and when the script is at its best, he causes wave upon wave of laughter as we all connect with his experiences working in Santaland.

The Sedaris story offers a hilarious behind-the-scenes look at how department stores manufacture Christmas spirit. As the tale progresses, Winkles takes on the persona of the other elves and the various Santas and even the managers, each one funnier than the last. He mocks the typical WalMart store cheer with its phony upbeat energy. He tells the truth about forcing a happy smile and enthusiastic tone in a world of pushy parents, cranky kids and weird co-workers. As his tales escalate it seems that the worse they behave, the more believable his story becomes. We have all seen the same thing waiting in line to pay for our purchases.

Crumpet is a human being trapped in an elf's costume. Kevin Sprague photos.

There is a goofy sort of perkiness in his portrayal of Crumpet, and he admits that he and his fellow workers are not always the good persons that Santaland employees are supposed to be. His view of Macy’s and Santaland is quite different from the image they so carefully cultivate. That Crumpet is easily bored and conjures up an imaginary Cher to direct people to see through a magic window, or regales others with his soap opera fixation clearly labels this Crumpet as just an ordinary person, if not completely normal.

WInkles inhabits his Christmas green elfin costume as if he were born at the North Pole. And while the comedy and laughs are sufficient reason to see Santaland Diaries, there is a payoff too. It is a moment of redemption, when one of the Santas is revealed to be someone with the real Christmas spirit, giving even Crumpet a lesson in being human. In the midst of madness comes a moment of touching grace.

Underneath the jingle bells and velvet Crumpet turns out to be like most of us, capable of getting the real Christmas spirit. He shows that beneath our sometimes cynical feelings about how Christmas has become a commercial enterprise celebrating consumption and excess, we all have buried deep within a deep and genuine yearning for the real thing.

Go see Santaland Diaries at Shakespeare & Company and you will see what I mean. You will laugh out loud over the ridiculous excesses of Christmas, yet come away from the show appreciating the season’s true spirit even more than when you first came in.

Shakespeare & Company presents The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, Adapted by Joe Mantello, Sets by Patrick Brennan, Costumes by Govane Lohbauer, Lights by Stephen Ball, Sound by Michael Pfeiffer, Stage Manager – Hope Rose Kelly, Directed by Tony Simotes. Cast: Ryan Winkles as Crumpet the Elf. About 80 minutes with no intermission. December 2-30, 2011 at the Elayne P.Berknstein Theatre, Lenox, MA. www.shakespeare.org

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