Zach Theatre's The Santaland Diaries

A new creative team energizes a 20-year-old holiday tradition at Zach

J. Robert Moore as Crumpet the Elf in The Santaland Diaries

When Martin Burke, longtime star of Zach Theatre's annual production of The Santaland Diaries, officially hung up his elf cap in 2016 (this time, he swore, for good), the future of a beloved holiday tradition seemed uncertain. Since 1998, this stage adaptation of David Sedaris' biting memoir of employment as a Macy's department store elf has provided Austin audiences with a delightfully cynical alternative to the sugary holiday fare offered by Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols. After a year off, Santaland has returned in an intimate, scaled-down production helmed by the proven director-actor team of Nat Miller and J. Robert "Jimmy" Moore.

Bringing a fresh energy to this yuletide staple (on the 20th anniversary of its Austin premiere, no less) is a tall order. But the duo's previous collaboration on Zach's critically-acclaimed one-man show Buyer and Cellar proved them well-suited to staging captivating solo performances. Miller's approach stands in contrast to previous Santaland presentations, which, over time, evolved into winter-themed variety shows, complete with original musical numbers and co-stars. His intimate, bare-bones production shines brightly by virtue of two simple elements: Sedaris' timeless wit and Moore's lively portrayal of Crumpet the Elf.

Perhaps the most notable departure from years past is the fluid manner in which crowd interactions – both planned and unplanned – are integrated into Moore's performance. Granted, most solo shows require actors to feed off audience energy. What's rare, however, is a performance wherein an audience serves as an actor's impromptu scene partner. Here, Moore's uncanny ability to act off of every laugh, gasp, and interjection make for a show that's less a monologue and more an organic dialogue. Unsurprisingly, this level of interaction leads some patrons (whether sauced or simply unaware) to confuse Moore's crowd-work with an invitation to strike up a mid-monologue conversation with Crumpet. With a less capable actor, such interruptions would mean death for the show's pacing; Moore's quick, in-character comebacks, however, remind talkative attendees where they are without compromising Santaland's tempo.

Considering that he denies having a serious improv background, one can only assume Moore's snappy rhythm stems from his knack for characterization. As with Buyer and Cellar, Moore's various characters come across not as cheap caricatures but careful portraits assigned unique energies and physicalities. This is most apparent with Crumpet, whose frantic on-the-clock joy is betrayed by Moore's seemingly involuntary expressions of disgust and anguish (something I, having worked retail over the holidays, relate to immensely). Such gleefully defined portrayals make Moore affable even in his missteps. When Moore flubs a line or gets tongue-tied, I don't see an actor stumbling; I see an overworked elf who's clearly over putting on appearances. (Hell, in one performance, Moore asked "What comes next?" to an offstage presence he dubbed "stage manager elf," a move made so smoothly and in character that it escaped the more relaxed members of the audience.) Moore recovering from slips by calling attention to them for a laugh does as much to define the hard-luck Crumpet as any line of witty Sedaris dialogue could.

The finesse with which Moore presents Crumpet is no doubt owed to the extensive directorial backgrounds of both Miller and Moore. With physically demanding solo shows, it can be easy for actors to fall into the trap of simply traveling their assigned blocking pattern – moved not by the script's natural energy but by their dutiful drive to hit mark after mark. This Santaland, conversely, is built around movement and blocking; Moore moves like a flipbook, each motion executed with purpose.

Considering how much Austin's changed since 1998, it's a joy not only to see a tradition like Zach's Santaland continue, but to do so with two such prominent creatives bearing the torch. Seeing how effectively Miller and Moore staged this holiday standard without frills, I find myself hoping the duo picks up where Burke left off: doing the show annually, perhaps with an added musical number or two. (Moore's voice is simply too delightful to go unutilized.) Should that not pan out, one hopes they'll revisit their creative partnership in some capacity – after the chaotic holidays have passed, of course.

The Santaland Diaries

Zach Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey, 512/476-0541
Through Dec. 30
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.

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Zach Theatre, J. Robert Moore, Nat Miller, Martin Burke, David Sedaris

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