Meanwhile, as we watch rehearsals, it is evident that the tired production is taking its own toll on the participants. The actor playing Scrooge is a rebellious troublemaker who last year protested U.S. policy toward the Third World by performing his entire role in Spanish. He sees no reason they should not improvise new and better dialogue than provided by the trite old script they have been using. In a vain attempt to demonstrate "affirmative action" and please the powers that be, the company has also hired a token black actor. Unfortunately, he cannot remember a single line. The cast resents the expatriate British actress playing Mrs. Cratchit, who harangues everyone about diction. The actor playing Bob Cratchit has developed back problems and can no longer carry Tiny Tim on his shoulders, because in the intervening ten years, the young boy has grown into a corpulent, 200-pound adolescent.

Into this mayhem comes a young man who, in a case of mistaken identity, is assumed to be the inspector from the NEA and is offered a role in the play. When the real inspector finally shows up, the production is a disaster, with the entire stage collapsing midperformance. Needless to say, the government evaluator thinks it is an avant-garde masterpiece, and all ends happily.

A brilliant antidote to perennial offerings of Dickens, this comedy cries out for the touch of a master farceur, such as David Ira Goldstein or Peter J. Hill. It should have a major revival each year until we get a respite from A Christmas Carol.

Meanwhile, Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre has tried to come up with an alternative shot of insulin to counteract the sugary babble of usual holiday fare. In its search for something suitably disrespectful, Planet Earth challenged its playwrights' group to write playlets that form the evening of Sick & Twisted Xmas. The problem is that the parodies are themselves so weak, the evening crawls by like a club-footed reindeer. Of the 16 skits, only the satire on the phony yokels selling Christmas trees seems wickedly right. There are a couple of amusing moments in Santa Crash, a portrait of a drunken Santa after he has crash-landed, and Santa Bond that imagines 007 as the spirit of Christmas. The cast is far better than the material, especially Jeffrey Hartgraves as Scrooge Limbaugh. Hartgraves weaves through the whole evening as the entre-act while scenes are changed, and he and his elves are more entertaining than the plays they fill between.

Next week I wind up my Christmas madness by seeing the huge extravaganza of Paramount's A Christmas Carol at New York's Madison Square Garden. Reputed to have 6,000 seats, a cast of more than 100 and a stage filled with 140 feet of scenery, it promises to be a fitting finale to this masochistic exercise. Meanwhile, if you are hungry to see real magic in the theatre, get over to Tempe Little Theatre and catch David Vegh and Gene Summers as Tom and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. This is far from a perfect production, but the beauty of the play shines through, especially in these two luminous performances.

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