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DRECK THE HALLS

Since I played Scrooge in the eighth grade, I have avoided all Christmas plays as a matter of principle. But this year, as a result of my new obligations, I was forced to spend a week surveying the local offerings of the holiday season. I have seen Mesa Community College's production of Inspecting Carol, Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre's Sick & Twisted Xmas and Actors Theatre of Phoenix's third annual adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, at a time when prisoners were required to walk on a treadmill six hours a day. The treadmill, not abolished until 1898, was a cruel machine devised to dramatize the uselessness of crime. Inmates were required for six hours a day to climb an endless cylinder of stairs that rotated beneath their feet. In Dickens' England, 8 percent of working-class children had lost both parents by the time they were 15, and almost a third had lost at least one: Murphy Brown by attrition. There was no official apparatus to take care of orphans except the workhouse system, which came into existence in 1834. Until then, relief of the poor, although required by law, had been exclusively a local obligation. Newt's "Contract With America" promises us something along the same lines.

The huge eruption of the homeless as a social problem in the past 15 years has invited a backlash of panic that threatens to undermine the humanity on which the 20th century has prided itself. We are now faced with changes that propose to take the country backward, to the "innocent" time before the New Deal, when our government acknowledged no responsibility for the social sufferings of its people. If orphanages are the answer for the children on welfare, can workhouses for destitute adults be far behind? Dickens' social criticism was the principal raison d'àtre of his work, and he never flinched from presenting the bleak prospects of the underprivileged. Like Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol is filled with dark shadows, and employed imagery of death and hunger, of disease and mortality, of ghosts and guilt to dramatize the need for a spirit of generosity all too rare in 19th-century London.

Yet the current production by Actors Theatre of Phoenix flaunts rosy-cheeked children, for whom it is impossible to feel much sympathy. One need not be a curmudgeon to notice how much better-fed the people onstage are than the homeless survivors of Reaganomics who haunt the blocks surrounding Herberger Theater Center, and whose solicitations offer a bracing dose of reality.

Recognizing the easy money to be bilked from consumers in a season of overspending, producers throughout our country annually leap at the opportunity to squeeze a pious moral out of our collective guilt over greed, and the need to escape from responsibility. We would prefer to spend $55 for a pair of tickets to confirm our generous spirit than to donate that same amount to feed the Cratchits in our own neighborhood.

This Actors Theatre revival is relentlessly sunny and cheery, without a trace of social reality. The Scrooge in this Carol for the third year is Gerald Burgess, whose pathetic attempt at an English accent sets the tone for the counterfeit sentiment of the whole enterprise. He bleats "Bah" as "Baa," and squeezes out his peculiar vowel sounds like the last of the toothpaste.

Bob Cratchit is played with feeling by Tracy C. Henry, but in this adaptation, he gets stuck with a lot of windy speeches that bog down the forward motion. Tambra Smith Lamb makes an unusual and winning Christmas Past, and Kenneth Bridges is charming and effective in both his roles as Fezziwig and Christmas Present.

The technical elements are first-rate, especially Josi Ingram's perfect costumes. The elaborate sets are designed by Gage Williams, and they move fluidly within James Lincoln's limpid lighting. This is a musical adaptation by Richard Hellesen, with original music and lyrics by David de Berry. Unfortunately, every song is literally a "showstopper," pausing to embellish what has already been dramatized, and never advancing the action. Generally, Melissa J. Morris' staging is rather forced and mechanical, but she does keep this cast of 22, with three live musicians, lurching forward through ubiquitous rivers of dry ice. I suppose it might be argued that this is a holiday treat for children and a good way to indoctrinate them into the thrill of theatre; but at the Sunday matinee I attended, many of the kids were too young to grasp the proceedings and were restless for something more authentic, like the real Santa Claus.

I suspect the whole audience would have had a better time seeing Inspecting Carol, which is an ingenious merger of Gogol's classic Russian comedy The Government Inspector with A Christmas Carol. Collaboratively written by director Daniel Sullivan and his talented company at the Seattle Repertory Theater, the play is a timely and relevant lampoon of a financially bankrupt and artistically impoverished theatre group threatened with the loss of its grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. This group (certainly not to be confused with Actors Theatre of Phoenix!) has pandered to its subscription audience by reviving A Christmas Carol each year for the past ten seasons, thereby guaranteeing one sure-fire success. The NEA has informed the group that it has been found wanting in artistic merit, and is sending an evaluator to give the company one last chance to prove its worth.

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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