The holiday season is upon us, and theater companies will again try to beef up their bottom lines by trotting out that guaranteed crowd-pleaser, A Christmas Carol (which, incidentally, the Orinda Starlight Village Players and at least forty children will be presenting December 14 and 15 at the new Orinda Library Auditorium, for those of you who don't want to trek into the City for your Cratchit fix). The small, Midwestern theater company portrayed in Daniel Sullivan's Inspecting Carol is no different. Their groundbreaking season (they hired a black actor, performed a Glengarry Glen Ross with all the swear words taken out) cost them subscribers. And this was before the computer ate the other half of the subscriber list, and news came that the NEA was about to pull their grant.
What's a hot-blooded Lithuanian director and her cast to do? With only four days of rehearsals scheduled, an embarrassingly threadbare prop turkey, and a Tiny Tim who's grown so big that Mr. Cratchit must wear a back brace, a mysterious stranger appears: Wayne Wellacre. He might be a stunningly bad wannabe actor who has dropped his computer job to follow his bliss, or he might be ... the NEA inspector sent to pass one last judgment on their artistic integrity. Taking no chances, cast, crew, and accountant bend over backwards to make him happy -- they put him in the play, let him rewrite it as he sees fit, throw him a party, and try to seduce him. The end result is not your father's Carol, but a bitingly funny riff on theater people, granting organizations, well-intentioned hiring policies -- and audiences ("The public needs this [show]," one character says despairingly, "they'd tear this place down if we didn't do it").
While the acting here is inconsistent, ranging from the over-the-top performances of Kevin, Zora, and Phil to the understatedly humorous Sidney, the frustrated "multiculturally cast" Walter (who, upon being told that ghosts are always white, grumbles "After I'm dead I'll be able to buy on credit"), and the elegant Dorothy, the overall effect is very funny. By the time the troupe gets to the final dress rehearsal, stage manager M.J.'s (Valerie Coleman) barely contained snickering is contagious. Larry Vauxhall (George Adams), the bandanna-wearing, ever-so-PC lefty who's had it with the patriarchal Scrooge he's been playing since time immemorial, is every director's nightmare -- you can't do the play without this actor, but you can barely do it with him either (Larry, already on probation for breaking into Spanish one year to protest the oppression of the Third World, says things like, "I still think we're pulling our punches about Tiny Tim's sexuality"). And he gets his fingers deep into Wayne's rewriting of the classic, for a result you just have to see to believe ... especially if there's a teeny bit of Scrooge still lurking in your stocking.
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