It is the best of times, it is the worst of times: the holidays.
Perhaps that's the wrong Dickens classic, but the holidays bring joy to some and dread to others. For everyone who can't wait for another version of The Nutcracker or viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, there's someone who finds great relief in The Santaland Diaries or Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa. Whether you like to observe the holidays in precious or irreverent fashion, there's enough going on in New Orleans this week to fill all sorts of naughty and nice wish lists.
High expectations and holiday anxieties collide in the new holiday classic The Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris' chronicle (adapted by Joe Mantello) of working as an elf at Santaland at Macy's in New York City. Amid the holiday rush, parents and children wait in long lines for a visit with Santa, and eventually their dreams and frustrations spill out in hilarious and revealing fashion.
"Everyone is familiar with the voices of children at the holidays," says A.J. Allegra, who is reprising his successful run of the one-man show at Mid-City Theatre. "But this is the voice of someone who has to work at the holidays. It's about the daily grind."
In the wickedly funny play, Sedaris finds inspiring high points, but much of it focuses on punching the clock at the joy factory that is the behemoth New York department store's holiday attraction. Children melt down and cry when they see Santa. New Yorkers hassle the elves, and the faux wonderland is a beacon to all sorts of odd people.
In reality, elf work is a pretty good job, says the NOLA Project's Alex Martinez Wallace (currently starring in Romeo and Juliet at NOMA). He worked as an elf at Macy's in New York last year. (His elf name was Fezziwig, a character from Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the name of a Samuel Adams seasonal brew.)
"It was a great gig," Wallace says when asked if it lived up to Sedaris' description. "I got to dress up like a fool and screw around. There were a few manager elves — called White Flowers. They would come over and deal with any problems."
Once, when a determined customer bull-rushed him to get in the closing doors at the end of the day, a White Flower asked him why he didn't physically restrain the man. But most duties were more amusing and free of elf overseers, he says.
"Once I was working as an 'exit elf,'" he says. "It's so simple — you just thank people for coming. (White Flowers) wouldn't watch you as much because it's easy. I made up my own version of (Journey's) 'Don't Stop Believing': 'Just a small town elf / living on this arctic shelf ... ' It was great."
Wallace also sang on street corners for the Salvation Army, and that involved more conventional holiday tunes. He found both seasonal part-time jobs easier than teaching theater, English and math in Bronx middle schools, he says.
For those who like traditional holiday songs, there are plenty of local options this week. Comedian Harry Shearer and guests host an annual sing-along at the Contemporary Arts Center (www.cacno.org) on Sunday. Most of the music is traditional, but not all. For traditional caroling, Patio Planters (www.patioplanters.org) hosts its annual candlelight caroling event in Jackson Square at 7 p.m. Sunday (candles and song sheets are provided). At the Westwego Performing Arts Center, Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Society (www.jpas.org) presents Danny O'Flaherty and guests, including Janet Shea and Amy Alvarez singing Celtic Christmas songs, plus some dance and holiday storytelling (there are shows Saturday night and Sunday afternoon).
There also are holiday songs with a little extra color. After a two-year hiatus, Running With Scissors has brought Grenadine McGunkle's Double-Wide Christmas back to One Eyed Jacks. The serialized drama always begins with Grenadine preparing her interfaith potluck barbecue at the Everlasting Arms Trailer Park and concludes with the party. In between, there's a raunchy variety show with a lot of musical numbers with friends and family who are home for the holidays — typically featuring trashy aspiring Branson, Mo., performers Crystal and China, Gladys Finklestein (Brian Peterson) and super swishy mailman Johnny Shoemake (Bob Edes Jr.).
The first installment of Grenadine came on the heels of Scissors' popular 2001 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock musical starring a spurned transsexual diva. The inspiration for Grenadine was a combination of obscure videos of an oddball woman called Carol Peril (now easily found on YouTube), and the 1988 Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas special.
"In one show, you have Pee-wee (Herman), Cher, Dinah Shore, Grace Jones, Frankie (Avalon) and Annette (Funicello), Zsa Zsa Gabor and Charo sings 'Feliz Navidad,'" says Scissors cofounder Richard Read. "It's the gayest Christmas show you've ever seen."
What Grenadine doesn't have in celebrities, it makes up for with racy innuendo and perversity. But in the big picture, the eccentric characters love the holidays, too, and their melodrama is not unfamiliar to audiences.
"People love dirty Christmas," Read says. "But at its core, it has to be sweet."
Also bridging the not-so-fine line between naughty and nice is the Fleur de Tease burlesque troupe, which is presenting its sixth annual holiday show Sunday at One Eyed Jacks. It's stocked with plenty of naughty elves, but other than that, it's full of holiday tradition.
"I used to be a ballerina," says founder Trixie Minx. "So I did The Nutcracker every year. There's always a dance show at the holidays."
The holiday show is one of her particular favorites, she says.
"I'm Jewish, so I was really excited to finally get to decorate for the holidays," she says.
In past years, she's played Santa in the show, but this year, there's a more authentic Santa, and she'll be debuting a new striptease act involving a menorah and a dreidel.
Santa will meet with the audience before the show at One Eyed Jacks.
"People can sit on Santa's lap and tell him what they want," Minx says. "And if they're lucky, they may get it in the show."