The Plot Dickens

If you're looking for a traditional holiday treat, Actors Theatre of Phoenix is offering its slick production of A Christmas Carol. Forthose with a slightly less traditional taste in holiday fare, let me recommend Copperstate Players' production of Inspecting Carol. If a Mrs. Cratchit played as a Southern landowner, a Tiny Tim played like the Elephant Man and a Ghost of Christmas Past running around in a diaper is your idea of spreading good cheer, then this show is for you.

Described as "A Christmas Carol meets The Inspector General meets Noises Off!," the comedy's plot revolves around a rehearsal for the Soapbox Playhouse's annual production of A Christmas Carol, a show the company has performed so frequently that it allows only four days for rehearsal. Unfortunately, it has a new cast member who needs a lot more rehearsal time, and a notso-tiny Tiny Tim who has grown substantially since last year's production. The result is theatre at its hilarious worst, from the dreadful audition of an overeager actor to malfunctioning props, missed entrances and an actor's warm-up routine that made this audience member shudder.

Enter the news that the theatre's National Endowment for the Arts funding may be pulled (because of "a significant artistic deficit"), pending an evaluation. When the inspector from NEA arrives, all efforts are directed at pleasing him, while a clear case of mistaken identity keeps the audience in stitches.

All of the typical theatre problems abound: Performers don't show up on time, an actor sacrifices art to make political statements, another actor has initiated the mandatory love affair, and yet another performer can never find his place onstage; costumes get tangled in props and, ultimately, fall off, and jealousy rages. Anyone who has participated in a third-grade Christmas pageant will empathize with these characters.

Written by Daniel Sullivan, the script is pretty much first-rate. He pokes fun at every type of actor imaginable, and at every theatre that uses A Christmas Carol as a "fund raiser" disguised as art. There are some weak moments in the script, and the ending leaves the audience hanging somewhat; but those around me spent most of the evening in tears, they were laughing so hard.

Director Peter J. Hill leads a group of talented performers through this madcap comedy. In a risky move, Hill has cast himself as Larry, the theatre's traditional Scrooge, who, since his recent divorce, has become hyper-socially conscious. Hill accomplishes both tasks well with interesting blocking, a quick pace and a very believable performance as the Peace Corps Scrooge. Hill brings the action right out into the audience of the intimate theatre at Max's Dinner Theatre, allowing these 11 players more flexibility than the tiny stage would normally allow.

During the Playhouse's actual performance of A Christmas Carol, Sullivan uses voice-overs during blackouts to allow for the changing of costumes and sets as well as for filling in gaps of the well-known story. Some of these moments dragged and could easily have been cut to allow the well-set pace of the show to continue.

Teresa Springer makes a strong Zorah, theLithuanian founding director of the theatre, and the director, once again, of this year's production. Blessed with a commanding voice and a presence that keep the audience on edge, Springer moves easily from drillsergeant director to seductive grant seeker.

Roy Hunt is perfect as a pathetic thespian who finds it easier to fake an injury than to face the problems that arise during the chaotic preparation of the holiday classic. One of the most relaxed performers you will ever see onstage, Hunt has a charming, boy-next-door demeanor that wins over yet another audience.

Judith Scovern and Bill Estes give polished performances as a delightful older couple, set in their ways but eager to please at the same time. As the unpopular business manager, Raymond Moore is the only character to bring sanity to this group of out-there artists. His held-back delivery is in wonderful contrast to the chaos going on around him.

The highlight of the play is the actual presentation of A Christmas Carol. After four long days of counterproductive rehearsals, everything that could go wrong does. With cast members leaving town, actors forgetting their lines onstage and sound cues appearing from nowhere, the final product more closely resembles Footlight Frenzy than Dickens' tale of one man's redemption.

Bringing a touch of Monty Python to Dickens' classic tale, Inspecting Carol emerges as a welcome, laugh-a-minute alternative to more traditional Christmas fare.

Copperstate Players' production of Inspecting Carol continues through Sunday, December 31, at Max's Dinner Theatre, 6727 North 47th Avenue in Glendale. For details see Theatre listing in Thrills.

 
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