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Dickens Plays Defense 

Two shows put the screws on Scrooge

Seeing that A Christmas Carol hasn't been presented hereabouts by either a local or a touring company in the past two years, I don't think it's too harsh to say that Charlotte has grown tired of Charles Dickens' confectionary claptrap. My post-Turkey Day sampling of the local scene, in fact, disclosed that two of our theaters had escalated beyond mere weariness to downright hostility.

Crossing the tracks on Central Avenue, I found Carolina Actors Studio Theatre assailing the Yuletide classic with irreverent satire. Next afternoon, the assault was renewed at Theatre Charlotte, where the saccharine goo was peppered with premeditated incompetence -- and occasional dashes of bawdiness.

While two concurrent anti-Dickens incursions may not be a tidal wave of bah-humbuggery, audiences turned out enthusiastically for both. Indeed, last Saturday night's performance of Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge at CAST was sold out.

Decked out for the season in UPS livery, Corlis Hayes greets us as the Ghost of Christmas Past, reclaiming the stage throughout the evening as Ghosts Present and Future in an earthy, high-energy performance. Each time she transports our recalcitrant Scrooge to a new locale, our garrulous ghost tends to whirl about like one of the Weird Sisters around her cauldron.

But it's the audience that experiences the most vertigo keeping pace with playwright Christopher Durang's capricious twists and turns. When she finishes whirling and conjuring, the Ghost's errant telemetry lands her in unexpected places. The nearest misses leave us in Dickensiana County. Instead of Ebenezer's childhood, we detour into Oliver Twist's orphanage. When we eavesdrop chez Cratchit, the household has mushroomed to over 20, including the super-pathetic Little Nell, on loan from The Old Curiosity Shop.

Another detour, accompanied by theme music from The Twilight Zone, lands us briefly in O'Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." That's nothing compared to the mayhem that breaks loose after intermission when Clarence, the lovable angel from It's a Wonderful Life, kidnaps the entire storyline.

I'll leave you to guess how this intrusion leads us to the opening theme from Leave It to Beaver. But there's also musical pabulum written by Michael Friedman, excruciatingly innocuous as the whole ensemble joins in. These treacly episodes are not quite counterbalanced by our funky Ghost's eccentric excursions into the Billie Holiday songbook.

Artistic director Michael R. Simmons has once again reinvented the CAST venue, creating a new performance space facing out at the audience from the bar area. Having a tavern-like backdrop for a twisted Christmas parable turns out to be a curiously apt fit. And while the new space doesn't appear wired-up to pump out the same technical dazzle as last month's Orange Lemon Egg Canary, scrappy pacing and scene changes make up for supernatural elements that are less than super.

All might be well if Simmons were merely directing, reconfiguring his theater, designing lights and dealing with a busy, off-the-wall script. But in the 20-person ensemble, Simmons is directing numerous experienced actors for the first time, numerous others who are inexperienced onstage -- and possibly more young people than he's ever worked with before.

Tableaus of the kids are always clean, and thanks to Simmons' lighting and Victoria Simmons' costume team, they always look right. But you rarely catch that precocious sound of a child speaking every word of every sentence with ringing clarity. A thick verbal haze seems to descend over all the Cratchit scenes with only a word or two per sentence shining through.

Durang delivers enough wicked zaniness for me not to mind missing the occasional outré bon mot emerging from the young fry. Adult actors onstage, however, don't enjoy the same luxury. Sometimes they didn't appear to know any better than I did whether their cues had been spoken. That strain shows, affecting rhythm, relaxation and flow.

Sailing nonchalantly through these difficulties was just one facet of Robert Haulbrook's remarkable performance as Bob Cratchit. If you saw his cameo earlier this month as the dying, broken-winged poet in Crazyface, you won't want to miss this biggie-sized serving of milquetoast.

On the other hand, it might helpful for Tara Nicole Watts to loosen up in the title role. Durang's idea is that Mrs. B despises her poverty, her sickly kids and her craven husband enough to take a leap off the London Bridge. Yet she hears voices in her head -- the Ghosts and Scrooge when they're lurking invisibly. And this Scrooge is smitten by the spunky side of Mrs. Cratchit's bitterness. Undermining the Ghosts' entire rehab project.

The whole Gladys Cratchit plotline isn't as integral as Durang's title suggests. Still, it might begin to work if Watts were more relaxed and appealing -- and some chemistry sparked between her and Scrooge while he hovered near her.

Of course, we must like Durang's Scrooge a lot sooner with all the Ghosts' bumblings and Bob's taking his bleeding-heart impulses too far. John Xenakis has a few engaging moments of this kind while remaining a materialist at the core -- like us. He's spot-on in quickly growing bored with ghoulish Marley's visitation, and a worldly James Mason note occasionally pops up in his voice.

Overall, Xenakis could stand to relax nearly as much as Watt -- and to keep his accent in the London vicinity. Meanwhile, David Birley upstages everybody as the angelic Clarence. Then Bryan Forrest comes along in his George Bailey cameo, stealing his scene with his wholesome James Stewart frowziness.

For anyone captivated by the hush-your-mouth naughtiness of Nunsense, a precious new dose of American Heartland mirth was on display last weekend as The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Presents A Christmas Carol took up residence at Theatre Charlotte. By the final Sunday matinee, the cast of five had found a rudimentary rhythm and flow, no mean achievement with a script as lame as this joint effort by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin, Jr.

Carol Weiner actually won my admiration for making Mrs. Phoebe Arbuckle Reece -- the Farndale Avenue frau who adapts, directs, narrates and acts in the Dickens -- into a fitfully comical creature with more than one dimension. Equal opportunities weren't available to the other actors, I'm afraid.

Under James Yost's direction, however, a high proportion of the physical comedy was executed with precision. As the title implies, this farce is a sort of Noises Off fiasco inflicted upon the helpless Victorian novelist -- minus onstage talent, training, glamour or technical expertise. Not the sort of thing you'd expect back at Yost's BareBones company, where the watchword is "cutting edge theater that makes you think."

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