A double dose of holiday hilarity

BETC and the Avenue Theater give the gift of laughter

Gary Zeidner | Boulder Weekly

’Twas  the week before Christmas, and all through the town, some people were up while others were down. Some loved the snow and the cold  and the lights; some felt the whole thing just wasn’t right. Whether this time of year makes you joyful or crass, the holidays can be one big pain in the ass. So take a quick break from the candles and bows, and enjoy a guffaw from these thespian pros.

With Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa mere days away, I think it’s safe to say that we are smack dab in the middle of the most wonderful time of the year. People can choose to celebrate the birth of Christ, the miracle of the oil or the traditions of Africa, or they can Scrooge all over the season. Either way, we’re all lucky to have so much excel lucky to have so much excellent yuletide theatre to enhance — or distract us from — all the holiday hullabaloo.

For the third year in a row, Boulder’s own Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (aka BETC, or “Betsy” when spoken) brings forth the modern classic, The SantaLand Diaries. They say, “Write what you know,” and The SantaLand Diaries proves the value of that maxim. Years before fame and fortune came along, then-struggling actor David Sedaris was forced to take a job as an elf in SantaLand at Macy’s in Manhattan. His experiences in the green tights and velvet smock serve as the basis for this gut-bustingly funny, warmly Grinchy show.

From the moment he decides to apply to be an elf, David (Geoffrey Kent), embraces the surreality of the experience. As a stoner, he won’t pass the requisite drug test, right? Wrong. His acid tongue and complete disinterest will get him fired during elf training, he reasons. Not so much. His first day officially elf-ing in SantaLand arrives, and neither he nor the audience can quite believe that he’s actually embarking on a month-long descent into holiday hell.

The SantaLand Diaries is a one-man show, which means that its success or failure depends almost entirely on the performance of the lone actor occupying the stage. Geoffrey Kent, a Boulder theater veteran, is more than up to the challenge. He’s played David in all three of BETC’s SantaLands, and you can see and hear the ease with which he slips back into the role. His timing is outstanding, he imbues both the outrageous and the semi-serious moments with equal credibility, and he even improvs adeptly when necessary (like when a reference to a certain Jesus-lovin’ Denver sports star was met with both cheers and boos from the crowd).

Give credit for SantaLand’s staying power to director Stephen Weitz as well. With an annual performance, it’s easy to get lazy, but Weitz makes just enough tweaks to the production to keep it interesting and energized. Weitz, Kent and the rest of the cast and crew have given us not only a great night out at the theater but also the beginnings of a Boulder holiday tradition.

If the trials and tribulations of an elf in SantaLand aren’t really your bag, you might go for the sketch comedy that is the Avenue Theater Group’s Santa’s Big Red Sack. Also in its third year, Santa’s Big Red Sack is another production seemingly vying for the status of holly-jolly mainstay, and judging from the complete absence of empty seats and the raucous laughter that filled the theater from beginning to end, I’d say it’s well on its way.

The cast — who according to the program have, variously, worked together, acted together and/or married one another over the course of many years — is made up of Jane Shirley, Derek Hartman, Jeff Kosloski and Dave Shirley. These four not only sing and act in Santa’s Big Red Sack, but they also wrote it. The show has such a genuine, low-fi feel to it (kind of like a more professional version of the plays you and your cousins used to put on for the rest of the family after Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner) that you can’t help but be sucked in from moment one.

Moment one, in this case, is a rendition of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in which the expected examples of good will toward men are quickly replaced by some less likely and less savory candidates. When a show’s opening number marries the charity of Christmastime to druggies, thieves and whores, it’s making a promise that it’s going to go balls out, so to speak, to earn your laughs. Santa’s Big Red Sack keeps that promise and then some.

Christmas and Hanukkah are compared and contrasted in the context of the small subset of Christians who simply can’t understand Hanukkah as anything other than “Jewish Christmas.” Broadway mainstay A Chorus Line gets a North Pole makeover. As one might expect, Jesus makes an appearance, and yes, he’s in fine spirits. We find out what happened to Cindy Lou Who after she grew up and moved out of Whoville, and we even get to hear one character’s comically sublime explanation of how “Christmas” is Spanish for “more Christ.”

I loved everything about Santa’s Big Red Sack! (Hmm? I’m not sure that came out right. Or that.)

The cast seems to be enjoying the hell out of sending up the holidays. The writing is crisp, the performances strong and the pace brisk. With sketch comedy, you expect some duds, but Santa’s Big Red Sack never sags. Even the costuming astounds. I’ve never seen camouflage choir robes before, and I will never forget them.

Whether you decide to take a trip to SantaLand or cozy up to the big guy’s Big Red Sack, you’ll definitely get what you wanted this Christmas.

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