Tiny Stardust Playhouse does David Sedaris’ infamous take on Christmas.

What the Elf: Tyler Shilstone is the one-man motor behind Stardust’s Santaland interpretation, in which he draws from a range of vocal characters.

For their holiday theater offering, Stardust Playhouse was going to do a play by Steve Tesich called The Speed of Darkness, which Stardust director and co-founder Kirstin Clapp describes as a family drama of a Christmas play with a “deep, dark ending.” But when the outside world is as deep and dark as it’s been, it’s an oxymoron and a redundancy to “escape” into a bloody play.

So the trouble the actors had with learning their lines and blocking was serendipitous – Clapp, 37, simply scrapped that idea and reached back into the box of holiday ornaments and pulled out David Sedaris’ sharp Christmas satire Santaland Diaries. Nice save.

The story is based on Sedaris having to take a job, while pursuing an acting gig on a soap opera, as a pixieish and sarcastic elf named Crumpet employed in Macy’s Santaland some 20 years ago. It’s a color-saturated and surreal chronicle of crying and peeing kids being videotaped by their berserk parents, plus Santa-elfin politics and drama, menial and degrading work, contrived cheer and real bitterness. What the Macy’s machinery couldn’t know was that they had hired a diminutive man whose perception and rapaciousness were hawklike and who would later launch the ridiculous assignment into a stellar career in humor, starting with an NPR reading of his Santaland Diaries.

Clapp, who graduated from CSUMB this month with a film degree, charged out the gate last year with the theater space in North Monterey she runs with her mom, Judith Swartz name, with a flurry of bold and roguish works including Rabbit Hole, Extremities and You’ve Got Hate Mail. 

Clapp, who writes and directs here (and does lighting and set design and sound design and the booth), worked out other issues with her actor, Tyler Shilstone, who starred in their Marijuna-Logues and Zoo Story.

“David Sedaris, I believe, is a homosexual man, and I didn’t realize that until he started talking about being seduced by male elves,” Clapp confesses. (He’s been openly gay for decades.) “[That] didn’t go with my interpretation, which was like Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, drinking whiskey and cursing.” 

With Shilstone’s input, they took a different tact. Not the “dainty, flamboyant, over the top” interpretations they saw elsewhere, but “more Larry David, droll, straight performance.”

While heavy on hilarity and profanity-laced outbursts, the play plumbs surprising depths. 

“You’re not just contemplating jokes,” Clapp says. “You’re wrapping your mind around how skewed it gets, the commercialism that’s taken over Christmas.” 

Still, humor is where Clapp hopes audiences find the most satisfaction.

“[The holidays] are supposed to be so joyous while [people] are insane toward one another,” she says. “I want to make fun of that. I also want to remember why Christmas is important, why we do it.” 

SANTALAND DIARIES runs 8pm Friday and Saturday, 7pm Sunday, to Dec. 30, at Stardust Playhouse, 2115 N. Fremont St., Suite C, Monterey. $15. Not recommended for children. 402-8940, www.StardustPlayhouseMonterey.com

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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