Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Inspecting Carol" good fun at Seattle Rep

Call me Ebenezer.

I pretty much detest "the season." I get the willies when the holiday decor and detritus show up around Columbus Day. I get grumpy when "Holly Jolly Christmas" is playing in the background at my favorite breakfast café, intruding on an otherwise delightful and lazy 1 p.m. breakfast on a semi-sunny Dec. 1 on Alki. It annoys me to no end when my mailbox is overstuffed with catalogs daily from Halloween through Dec. 23 despite avid participation in Catalog Choice (113 cease and desist requests to 73 different catalogs and five phone books so far. And seriously, why does feel the need to send out a dead-tree catalog? It's Art DOT COM!!! That's in Internet thing!)

It's not that I'm anti-Christmas. I'm perfectly willing to hang up a few lights around the house and bust out the Santa suspenders on Christmas Eve, but I don't really want to be beaten over the head by this stuff for four months every year. I am no longer Ralphie.

Which brings us to the concept of the holiday play. The Seattle Times recently ran a listing of plays in the area for the holiday season. There are 46 of them, and I'm guessing the paper didn't include them all. Four of the shows are straight-up productions of A Christmas Carol, and seven others are some sort of riff on the Dickens tale. (Another parenthetical rant: Why do most of these "holiday" shows close down before Dec. 25? As a congenital Lutheran I know my liturgical calendar, and right now it's Advent; the Christmas season, the 12 days you've heard so much about, runs from Christmas Eve until Epiphany. Not only that, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is chock full of obligations, and all of the shows run during this time. Starting Dec. 26 many people are off school or work with little left to do but take the wrapping paper out to the recycling, and what's going on in the theaters? Crickets. Just nine of the 46 shows on the Times list run after Dec. 25. Harumph.) Most of the 46 have an Xmas theme, a few are light-hearted, such as The Wizard of Oz or The Music Man, but nobody seems to be doing Mamet or Tennessee or Arthur Miller or O'Neill or Sophocles any time after Veterans Day.

Reginald André Jackson, left, and Ian Bell
in Seattle Rep's production of "Inspecting
Carol." Photo by Chris Bennion.
So, here we are in paragraph five and I finally get to the point. If I'm going to a holiday show these days, I want it to be one that sticks a thumb in the eye of the concept, at least a little bit. That's why I was drawn to Inspecting Carol at the Seattle Rep. The show, directed by Jerry Manning, depicts the inept Soapbox Playhouse, a regional company on the brink of bankruptcy and hoping for a government grant to bail them out. They're doing their 12th annual production of A Christmas Carol with little creative oomph (save for the Scrooge character's unilateral decision to do his lines in Spanish one year.) Let's face it: They totally suck. And the Inspector from the NEA is going to be there on opening night to check them out. Kiss your grant goodbye!

The Rep cooked up this show back in 1991. It was written by Daniel Sullivan, artistic director at the time, along with other resident members of the company. They haven't performed it since 2001, though it's become something of a go-to holiday show in itself and is being produced in several other cities around the country this year.

The story builds slowly, with many a good joke during the first act and a half, though I often found myself the only person in the audience guffaw-ing, which always worries me; did I have one martini too many at 10 Mercer before the show? There are plenty of inside jokes about life on and off stage. The last 30 minutes or so are an absolute riot as the play within the play quite literally falls apart.

The fabulous cast is a great draw for this show. Reginald André Jackson is hilarious as the various ghosts. His character Walter Parsons is a newcomer to the production who never gets to learn his lines and who, as the only African-American member of the cast, serves as the embodiment of the company's weak-ass multicultural initiative. He also gets all of the best costumes. Ian Bell is enjoyable as Larry Vauxhall, the character who plays Scrooge in the ill-fated play. Peggy Gannon is great as the stage manager MJ, though somewhat less menacing than she was in her recent role in upstart crow collective's Titus Andronicus. Chris Ensweiler is one of the funniest guys around, and his Phil Hewlit plays Bob Cratchit despite his bad back and worse attitude. And it's always a treat to watch Michael Winters, who plays Sidney Carlton, the actor who portrays Marley in the play within the play. We're giddy with anticipation because Winters is one of two actors sharing the title role in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of King Lear next season.

I probably would not have gone to this show in November except for the fact that when I bought the tickets it was a part of a "spiked punch party" package, including cocktails and appetizers before the show. The Rep subsequently bagged the spiked punch, but the show must go on.

Inspecting Carol is a fun and amusing night out at the theater. It runs at the Rep through December 23. The Rep's video trailer for the play is below.

Oh, and true confessions: I'm going to A Christmas Carol at ACT this year. On Dec. 28. I'm also looking forward to Wisemen at ACT, which opens during Hanukkah and ends before Christmas.

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