Ho Ho Humbug

For years, New York actor and playwright Scott Burkell got a lot of mileage out of telling stories at parties about the time he worked as a Macy’s Santa. But he never thought of putting it together to make a play because of its similarity to David Sedaris’s tale of his time as Crumpet the Macy’s elf in Santaland Diaries (performed in the past by Alley Theatre company member Todd Waite but not this year). But he was persuaded otherwise because their experiences were different, he says, and ended up writing the two-act Ho Ho Humbug, which is about to make its world premiere at Stark Naked Theatre in Houston. The premiere site is fitting because Philip Lehl, co-founder of Stark Naked, performed dramaturg duties as Burkell developed his script. Lehl will direct and his wife and Stark Naked co-founder Kim Tobin-Lehl is one of the actors in the play.

Burkell says he never set out to be an elf, let alone a Santa. He was between acting jobs and needed one more week of work to qualify for unemployment. Looking for limited seasonal work, he applied to Macy’s, figuring he’d work in housewares, but after two days of training, they telephoned him and said they thought he’d be a good fit for Santaland as an elf. “They kind of lied to me,” he says, and told him there were elves of all ages. “There was a whole bunch of twentysomethings — a sea of them — a grandmother and me. So it was embarrassing.” After a week and a half as an elf, Burkell got moved to Santa when a spot opened up (well after Burkell ratted on a bad Santa). Thrown onto the Santa throne wearing a Santa straitjacket (a.k.a. padding; Burkell is a whippet), Burkell says he found the work affected him more than he ever thought it would as he listened to kids and their wishes.

Lehl says he and his wife “both thought the play was right within our aesthetic, that it needed actors who would be able to play with truth and honesty and yet it would still be funny.” “We’re telling a story that has a true journey for a character,” says Tobin-Lehl. “Even though this is a story about a guy who goes to Macy’s and becomes an elf and a Santa, every single person who watches this show will relate to this person and will feel like they have been this person moving through the Christmas season.” All stressed that this is not a play for children, especially those who still believe in Santa, and they suggest that no one under 13 should attend. Burkell (who also wrote LMNOP, which will be performed at TUTS Underground this spring) is the only one of six actors who plays one character throughout the play; the other characters divide up about 50 characters among them.

7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays with a special 3 p.m. performance December 24. Through December 24. Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For information, call 832‑866‑6514 or visit starknakedtheatre.com.$12 to $40.
Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Wed., Dec. 24, 3 p.m. Starts: Dec. 4. Continues through Dec. 24, 2014

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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