Sunday, December 13, 2009

One of life’s lessons that many people have learned by the time they reach my age is that there is a very thin line between courage and stupidity. Last night, Asheville Community Theater collectively leapt across that line in their production of The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris.

This is a play that Matt, Amy and I had all seen before as well as having read the original essay Sedaris has published in more than one of his books so we had some familiarity with the material. Amy approached me a couple weeks ago about seeing it together and I was excited about it. The last time I had seen a production of it was at Sacramento Community Theater (SCT vs. ACT) and that was at least 6 or more years ago so I felt like I was due.

A couple days ago we received an email from the company manager saying that Tom Chalmers who has traditionally played the lead role has had to drop out of the production for a few days due to a family emergency and that his understudy, the director, would be taking his place for, among others, the performance for which we had reserved seats. They were, in fairness, offering a choice of keeping the tickets or exchanging them for a performance after Mr. Chalmers returned to the production. Innocently enough we elected to keep our tickets and see the play performed by the substitute performer. Since he had been described as an understudy and was also the director, it stood to reason that he really knew the material and would do a good, if different, job.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. What we witnessed last night was, I believe, the worst night of theater I have ever had in my 61 years of life, and that includes some pretty dreadful children’s theater and other amateur material I have seen over the years.

The company manager came out onstage at the beginning of the performance to reiterate the information in the email and to tell us that the performance the previous night had been pretty dodgy at best. Consequently, she informed us, Crumpet, the lead character, would be performing with a script in hand. Interesting. He is the understudy and director but needs a script. She then ushered in a short video parody of A Christmas Carol in which both the original lead and the person we would see essentially promoted the ongoing annual productions of Santaland. It was, by far, the highlight of the evening.

As soon as Crumpet appeared onstage in a rather odd costume consisting of black pants and a tee-shirt painted to look like a dress shirt and tie, things started to degenerate. He broke from character so many times at the beginning that I was having trouble distinguishing what was the play and what consisted of an aside to either complain about his problems or comment on the difficulties of his performing in someone else’s costume. The costume clearly was a problem since he had to stop probably close to 10 times to reattach Velcro that was barely keeping the pants closed. No one knew quite what he was doing until later when he undid the Velcro and ripped the pants off revealing red underwear that was entirely too tight. Mercifully the underwear was covered up in short order by the coat he put on although it kept opening up because it was way too tight. Suffice it to say, audience members now know whether or not this actor had been circumcised.

Even after shedding the distracting pants, this man couldn’t stay in character because his familiarity with the piece was so poor that even reading the script, he couldn’t maintain any kind of continuity. The asides were almost constant. Cracks about jokes that Tom Chalmers had inserted that weren’t funny or at least weren’t getting laughs in this performance peppered the delivery. Many times he misread a line or lost his place on his script and had to start over on a line. Frequently when a page of monolog was finished he wadded it up and threw it into the audience saying “I won’t need that page anymore”.

Then there was the mincing effeminate stylized performance that I guess was intended to imply David Sedaris’ unconcealed gayness. It didn’t help. In my opinion the whole performance, and particularly this gay caricature was way too broad. When Sedaris wrote this piece and when he performs it at readings, he is dry and sarcastic. This performance was a dumbed-down farce and an insult to any self-respecting effeminate gay man. David Sedaris, incidentally, while he doesn’t conceal that he likes men, doesn’t make a particularly big deal out of it in this or most of his writings. He certainly hasn’t written or performed this work in the offensive and obviously self-conscious manner we witnessed last night.

In the end, the play came across as so disconnected that it was difficult to follow even for three people familiar with the work. I can’t imagine what someone who had never seen it or read it before would have thought.

In my opinion, ACT should have cancelled these performances. They do a disservice to their theater group, the play, the work of the man who normally performs this role, and the reputation of the poor man who has, I think, courageously but very unwisely stepped in as a replacement. As inexpensive as the tickets are, I believe everyone who paid to see last night’s performance was defrauded.