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Elf esteem 

Santaland Diaries puts the "christ!' in Christmas

Every holiday season, Horizon Theatre's The Santaland Diaries provides a caustic counteragent to the epidemic of Yuletide cheer. Based on David Sedaris' National Public Radio monologue, the play views the holidays through the sour eyes of Crumpet, a Macy's department store elf. Preparing for his seventh year in the tights and glitter vest, Harold M. Leaver, Horizon's perennial Crumpet, talked about getting in touch with his inner elf.

Creative Loafing: How did you land the role of Crumpet?

Leaver: In 1998, [Horizon artistic director] Lisa Adler called me and told me about the show, saying, "It's about this really, really bitter elf." I asked, "When are the auditions?" and she said, "Actually, we think you'd be perfect." It's a great call to get, but then you hang up the phone and say, "Hey, wait a minute!"

Was it hard to distinguish yourself from David Sedaris, who's so famous for Santaland and has such a distinctive voice?

At the time, I had only heard snippets of the NPR piece, and after I got the part, I never sought it out. Doing Santaland, the line between David and Harold gets blurred. I think my vocal and facial expressions are my comic gifts, so I have to exploit them as much as possible. On the radio, he's just voice and intellect, and we've got a spectacle to put on, man. We're competing with A Christmas Carol -- people are flying in that show!

How do you keep the same show fresh every year?

Every year we try to update it, to add new gags and make it as relevant as possible. Last year we tried to find humor in the job market and economy. People can relate to some poor sap who has to take a shitty job -- in the service industry, no less -- where the only defense mechanism is to make fun of people. And each time you have to change the toy of the year.

How anti-Christmas is the show?

It's definitely anti-holiday, but in the sense of the crass com-mercialization and com-petitiveness. But it also has that Miracle on 34th Street moment that says Christmas is real. On Christmas Eve, Crumpet works with a Santa he's never met before, who tells a little girl, "Remember that the most important thing is to try to love other people as much as they love you." Even Crumpet is moved to question, "What the hell have I been thinking?" That sounds so sappy, but the audience is always surprised when it hits them. You can hear them holding back the sniffles.

Have you ever had a work experience similar to Santaland?

My sophomore year at Rhodes College in Memphis was the first year I didn't go home for the holidays. Three days before Christmas, I got a call from my agent, who said he was desperate for a Santa on Christmas Eve for an office party at a Holiday Inn in Tupelo. He said, "Just go an hour late, they'll be drunk, they'll love you." I must have weighed 10 pounds less then than I do now, so I was padded everywhere, the Santa suit wouldn't stay up, and I was terrified. But when I got there, they were shit-faced drunk, and they did love me. People were throwing $5 tips at me.

Does Santaland interfere with your holidays?

Every year I have a show Christmas Day -- which is great. I'm not much of a holidays person, and I find that at family get-togethers, after about an hour-and-a-half, the holiday cheer starts to crumble and the childhood resentments start coming out. So I can stay for an hour and then say, "I've got a show -- I've gotta go!"

Plus, the best performances are always on Christmas Day. That's when the audience has been acting like they like everybody for the past 48 hours, and they've had a nap and a couple of cocktails, so they're ready to come to the play and say, "Whew!"

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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