Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Give 'em the Dickens: A Christmas Carol at Synetic, Christmas Carol 1941 at Arena, Second Shepherds' Play at the Folger.

'Tis the season for holiday cheer, whether we like it or not -- and God bless us everyone, Washington-area theaters are no exception to the rule. With at least three theatrical versions of A Christmas Carol playing simultaneously, theatergoers can give themselves the Dickens almost until the New Year. The Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre has become a Washington tradition, though with renovations to the historic venue underway (less charitable adjectives for Ford's Theatre would include "antiquated" and "creaky"), the event has moved a few blocks east to the smaller Lansburgh Theater, home of Shakespeare Theatre Company, where the seats are more comfortable and the stage space more modern and flexible. Performances are nearly sold out through Christmas, but easily available afterwards, and this Christmas Carol should prove a pleasant if pricey break for families weary of looting and pillaging the after-Christmas sales.

Synetic Theater: Meanwhile, Synetic Theater's A Christmas Carol, running through December 23 at the Rosslyn Spectrum, offers a dark, weird and wonderful twist on the holiday chestnut. Far from an easy grasp at a Christmas buck, as so many productions of Christmas Carol are, this uneven but surprisingly ambitious production trades the usual "goodwill toward men" for something more unsettling. The show gets off to a slow start, with a dialogue-heavy opening, but when the three spirits of Christmas make their respective appearances, it's a wild, unpredictable ride that never flags.

Irakli Kavsadze plays the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge with a Russian accent as thick as week-old borscht, yet he manages to reveal hitherto unseen depths in a character we thought we knew. Among the other seven members of the ensemble, Regina Aquilo shines as the "Spirit of Christmas Past," while co-director Dan Istrate plays the accordion and dances a sprightly trepak as the genial Fezziwig. None of the actors ever give the impression that they've so much as set foot in London, which is more than a little distracting, and the bleak, industrial sets and lighting frequently suggest Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment rather than Dickens. Yet despite some obvious shortcomings, theatergoers willing to accept a different distinctive gloss on this classic tale will find much to savor here.

As is typically the case with Synetic, A Christmas Carol is heavy on dance and spectacle. The final third of the show, involving the visit of "Christmas Future," is almost completely wordless, which frees the ensemble to perform the sort of pantomime they do best. This particular Christmas Carol is too harrowing for children, but teenagers and grown-ups should find it as a worthy introduction to one of the area's oddest and most fascinating theatrical groups.

Arena Stage: Arena Stage's world premiere of Christmas Carol 1941, now playing through December 30, has been widely advertised as a light-hearted musical entertainment. Alas, I must report that the show is neither light-hearted, nor especially musical, nor remotely entertaining. Not only is it the worst show I have even seen at Arena Stage, it's one of the worst shows I have ever seen, period. Christmas Carol 1941 gives rancid new meaning to the phrase "War on Christmas." And if the show is, as its producers claim, "truly an American Carol," it might even be reason enough to flee the country.

Local playwright James Magruder is best known for his translations of classic French farceurs, and judging from his unbelievably inept work on Christmas Carol, I can only hope he returns to Moliere and Marivaux as soon as possible. As the title implies, Magruder has set Dickens's tale of Victorian London in Washington DC during the opening weeks of World War II. Ebenezer Scrooge -- here known as "Elijah Strube" -- has become a hoarder, black market tycoon and war profiteer, while his long-suffering associate Henry Schroen, named after Magruder's maternal grandfather, is a patriotic typist with a loving family to support. The three Christmas ghosts appear to Scrooge in the guise of well-known DC statues, none of which are even slightly suggestive of the holiday season (one is meant to resemble Saint-Gaudens' Adams memorial, but looks more like a refugee from community theater). And poor little Tiny Tim has been transformed into a robust if somewhat dim-witted high-school senior who is all too eager to join the Allied war effort.

By conflating Christmas with World War Two, Magruder has taken a simple but effective story about the redemption of an individual soul, and infused it with Depression-era self-loathing, anti-capitalist rhetoric, social-justice sanctimony, and quasi-religious militarism. In this Christmas Carol, warfare eclipses Christmas, governments replace charity, and FDR and Winston Churchill assume the role of Jesus Christ. The resulting incoherent muddle is guaranteed to perplex and offend everyone alike -- hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives, Christians and secularists.

Still, Arena's production looks slick enough, and it's about as well acted as it can be. It's clear that director Molly Smith and an immensely talented cast and crew have done their damnedest to make this sow's ear stageworthy, but to no avail. As Scrooge -- or rather, "Strube" -- James Gale is too shrill and annoying to gain audience sympathy, though that's hardly his fault: Gale's repeated cries of "Bullcrap!" instead of the more traditional "Humbug!" open the show on the crassest of false notes, and his attempts early in the show to goad a young girl into delivering a full-throated Nazi salute come across as genuinely repugnant. But no show with Nancy Robinette can be entirely unwatchable, and Robinette is far more effective than she has any right to be as Mrs. Cratchit -- or rather, "Mrs. Schroen" -- a nervous matriarch who views the prospect of her son's enlistment with growing dread.

Composer Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) and lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Jelly's Last Jam) contribute three perfunctory musical numbers, one of which -- the generic swing-tune "Heroes on the Homefront" -- provides the only enjoyable moment in the show. But the shapeless scenes, clunky exposition, and hard-line socialist rhetoric make the rest of Christmas Carol 1941 feel like the work of Arthur Miller in his dotage. It is unsuitable for children of all ages, races, creeds, and political and religious persuasions.

Folger Library: For theatergoers seeking non-Dickensian cheer, or simply a rollicking good time, the Folger Consort is providing a hundred minutes of nonstop Yuletide bliss with its delightful rendition of the anonymous, 16th century Second Shepherds' Play. This comic encounter of three well-meaning shepherds with a sheep thief and his equally deceitful wife has lost none of its playful sparkle over the centuries, and the thief and his wife -- played to gut-busting perfection by Andy Brownstein and Holly Twyford -- qualify as two of the flat-out funniest characters in English literature. As the finale demonstrates, there is some theological method behind the madness, but you don't have to be well-versed in Christian doctrine to appreciate the show's earthy humor and infectious good nature.

Director/adaptor Mary Hall Surface hews closely to the original, unmodernized 16th-century text, and keeps the staging simple, uncluttered and colorful. Performances are broad without going over the top, and even though younger theatergoers will find the arcane language difficult, the cast always ensures that the meanings and situations are clearly understood. The only possible drawback lies with the show's extensive use of medieval carols, dances and popular songs, which make this Second Shepherds' Play more like a musical concert than a drama proper. No doubt some theatergoers will sense that these interludes are all so much padding, but when the music is flawlessly performed on period instruments, as here, there's no real cause for complaint.

Second Shepherds' Play is seldom staged nowadays, but as the Folger has triumphantly demonstrated, there's no reason it shouldn't be done far more often. Hopefully, it will become another DC-area holiday tradition, like the Ford's Theatre Christmas Carol.

Ford's Theatre: A Christmas Carol, adapted by Michael Wilson from the novella by Charles Dickens. Directed by Matt August. Original staging recreated by Mark Ramont. Through December 29 at the Lansburgh Theatre. For more information or to buy tickets, call (202)547-1122 or visit http://www.fordstheatre.org.

Synetic Theater: A Christmas Carol, adapted by Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and Dan Istrate. About seventy-five minutes, no intermission. Through December 23 at the Rosslyn Spectrum. For more information or to buy tickets, call (703) 824-8060 or visit http://www.synetictheater.org.

Arena Stage: Christmas Carol: 1941, adapted by James Magruder. Music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Directed by Molly Smith. Two hours ten minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Through December 30 at the Fichandler Theater. For more information or to buy tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or visit http://www.arena-stage.org.

Folger Library: Second Shepherds' Play. Anonymous, attributed to the Wakefield Master. Adapted and directed by Mary Hall Surface. One hour, forty minutes, including 15-minute intermission. Through December 30 at the Folger Shakespeare Library. For more information or to buy tickets, call (202) 544-7077 or visit http://www.folger.edu.

Merry Christmas, Mike Huckabee

Which is more distressing about Mike Huckabee's now-infamous Christmas ad -- that the bookshelf behind him looks suspiciously like a glowing white cross, or that it apparently contains not a single actual book?

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