A tale of two X-mas Carols

Professional taxonomists of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol have now identified several thriving subspecies of Carol, including musical Christmas Carols (such as at the San Pedro Playhouse), spectacular Christmas Carols (such as at Houston’s Alley Theater), and 3D Christmas Carols (invading megaplexes everywhere). To these we may now add community productions of A Christmas Carol about community productions of A Christmas Carol, or, as they are known in professional literary circles, MetaCarols.

The Overtime’s entry in the hotly contested MetaCarol category is An Actor’s Christmas Carol: A Holiday Panto?, a spoofy 60-minute romp through the basic story: A misanthrope meets the ghosts of his past, present, and future, and makes amends in a timely and ultimately heartwarming fashion. In this version, penned by Scott McDowell and directed by Roy Thomas, the protagonist is recast as temperamental prima donna William Mitchum (Cary Farrow), an insufferable film actor and rotten human being. Significantly, he is also slated to appear in a local stage production of A Christmas Carol. A Dickensian time-warp follows Mitchum (aka Scrooge) from his adolescence as a fledgling little jackass through his maturation into a world-class jackass. Sophia Bolles nicely commits herself to the role of Mitchum’s pathetic understudy, the thinly veiled “Rob Satchit.”

It’s hard to evaluate the Overtime aesthetic: Obviously, the troupe has its fans, and I dig its new digs in the Blue Star Arts Complex. But even for a quick-change holiday panto, An Actor’s Christmas Carol seems more slapdash than slapstick. In the spirit of the genre, everything’s a one-liner or sight gag, and while no panto is going to land every joke, the misses come far too frequently. I appreciate the more obscure cultural gags — was I the only one to laugh at the Shmoo reference? — and a sly send-up of San Antonio’s Globe Theater Awards (“They’re impossible to get!”) has some satirical bite. But on the whole, the evening seems under-rehearsed and amateurish, like a sketch performed for friends rather than for a citywide audience.

The Cameo Theater’s MetaCarol — entitled Inspecting Carol, and written by Daniel Sullivan and his former gang at Seattle Rep — constitutes a far stronger effort, though not without its flaws. The plot has all the fixings of a fine two-act farce: a middling community theater, already struggling financially, receives a surprise visit from an inspector from the National Endowment of the Arts, just as the troupe is readying its umpteenth awful production of A Christmas Carol. With its federal funding in jeopardy, the company desperately rewrites Dickens’s iconic tale even as individual actors suffer the usual laundry list of comedic obstacles, including sexual tension, mistaken identities, and misbehaving shackles. The play culminates — à la Noises Off — in a sublimely terrible (and therefore ultimately enjoyable) production of A Christmas Carol.

The first act largely serves to introduce the eccentric cast of characters, including a not-so-Tiny Tim and a perpetually peeved “multicultural” ghost. But until the second act’s rip-roaring travesty of Dickens, the evening starts off slow and sometimes flat-footed. I kept thinking that with a troupe of a dozen expert actors — such as at Seattle Rep — this preamble would be a delight: an opportunity for thespians to strut their stuff. At the Cameo, director Rick Sanchez has managed to land three charismatic actors — Hayley Burnside, Dave Cortez, and Melissa Gonzalez — but the remaining cast runs the gamut from simply fine to simply weak. (Some spotty accents don’t help.) The zippier second act, however, is foolproof, as Cortez finds himself trapped in a self-destructing production of Scrooge’s infernal journey, a sort of MetaHell. Sullivan’s literate script features some real zingers (on the troupe’s bowdlerized version of Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross: “It only lasted five minutes”) but demonstrates as well a soft spot for struggling theater companies everywhere. The enigmatic team of Tanaka and Onoshi Dident contributes appropriately ramshackle Edwardian sets and costumes.

In San Antonio, as elsewhere, December is largely an artistic and theatrical wasteland, littered with myriad Messiahs, cracked nuts, and a generous dollop of Dickens. But at least we can thank the Overtime and Cameo for serving up variations on a theme, if a-Caroling, a-Caroling we go. •

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