Saturday, December 8, 2007

A.C.T.'s 'A Christmas Carol': ☼☼☼ 1/2 BANG

You know the characters, you know how the story turns out, you've seen or heard it a dozen times on TV or video or on the radio or on a record. You may even approach the evening at A.C.T. Theater with trepidation, saying to yourself "Oh, Man! A Christmas Carol AGAIN? We'll be out of there by Act Two."

Humbug. You'll be on your feet at the end of Act One AND Act Two, shouting "Bravo! or "Fezziwig!" If you are like this writer, you will want to grow up to be just like Scrooge.

You get good Bob Cratchit (the excellent Jud Williford) and his poor but humble family, including crippled Tiny Tim. You get bad Ebenezer Scrooge whose last name has come to define skinflintedness for more than a hundred years. Toss in the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. The result is the triumph of lightness over dark, of good over evil.

Ah, but you are not prepared for James Carpenter, whose Scrooge at the opening is frighteningly formidable, but by the time the ghost of Bob Marley (Jack Willis) gets done with him has become a groveling, frightened old man before our eyes. You are not prepared for John Arnone's sets (if you've ever drunk a quart of spoiled egg nog maybe you'll recognize the deep green and horrific specter of Christmas Future) and Beaver Bauer's costumes, especially the two Spanish Onions and two Turkish figs, played by children, who captivate us in the audience as they are doing so to Ebenezer on stage.

This is not children's theater in Gilroy, friends; it's the big city, with music, dancing, fabulous acting and full production values. It's so easy to be a grinch and complain about all the Christmas-y overkill we must all face each and every year. With 'A Christmas Carol' perhaps we have the antidote. Take one and blog me in the morning.

RATINGS:☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards A.C.T.'s 'A Christmas Carol a full star and a half for Scrooge himself ("Fell in Love? BAH!"); a star for the memorable dance sequence at the Fezziwigs' party; another for Marley rising out of Scrooge's bed (Take THAT, Sigmund Freud), plus all the Ghosts of Christmas Whenever. A special BANGLE is awarded for the priceless moment on Opening Night when Bob Cratchit and family were gathered around their meager Christmas repast on stage, and a little voice called out from somewhere in the second balcony: "Mewwy Cwistmas to you too!"

Are you smiling? This is for the way you get to feel when you walk out of the theater after the final curtain calls. If you don't like 'A Christmas Carol,' you must be a Republican.

American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco
Dec 7-23 Tue-Sun. $18-$82

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge! ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG BANG

The combination of a wonderful premise, plus the appearance of many favorite Bay Area actors, keep Act One of 'Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge!' lurching forward at a rewarding and hysterical pace. The audience identifies strongly with long-suffering Mrs. Crachit, played to exasperated perfection by Joan Mankin, whose life with her impoverished do-gooder husband Bob (a showcase role for Keith Burkland) has driven her to the point of suicide. Little Tiny Tim (Lizzie Calogero) is as optimistic as only an idiot can be (Mommy! I only fell down 24 times today!) and Mrs. C.'s husband's employer Ebenezer Scrooge has just cut Bob Cratchit's meager salary in half. Li'l Nell (Jean Forsman) has tried to purchase presents for the entire family, but she has only been able to gather enough money for the wrapping.

This pushes Mrs. Cratchit over the edge. She decides to abandon her family, including the 20-plus adopted street urchins who live somewhere down in the root cellar, and head straight to the nearest bar, get drunk on Tequila Sunrises and then throw herself off the London Bridge into the Thames. So far, so silly and so wonderful.

But oi. The second act of Christopher Durang's 2002 spoof becomes mired in slapstick that might have been cute in New York five years ago but is mostly mystifying now. The actors try (Victor Talmadge as Scrooge stays perfectly in character despite an incomprehensible romance with...Leona Helmsley? Yes.), but there's only so much they or director Joy Carlin can do.

Those who remember SF Playhouse's excellent 'Reckless,' by Craig Lucas, another demented Christmas story that was mounted at the same time last season, will not exit the theater with the same enthusiastic feeling. But there are terrific moments, among them the finest and funniest version of 'Silent Night' you'll ever hear on a stage. Perhaps some day the playwright will reprise Mrs. Bob. Anyone who has ever felt dark thoughts about Christmas will continue to cheer for her.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Mrs. Bob Crachit's Wild Christmas Binge!' one star for Keith Burkland and Joan Mankin, whose Mr. and Mrs. Bob Cratchit take suffering to a new level; another for the way the smooth production team manages to move all those scene changes on and off a small stage; and half a star for Cathleen Ridley's channeling of Billie Holiday at the opening of Act Two. A very special bangle is awarded for that slow-slower-slowest version of Silent Night and another bangle is shared both for tasering Scrooge and for keeping Ken Lay on the Bad Guy Front Page. Two and a half stars with two bangles for 'Mrs. Bob Crachit's Wild Christmas Binge!' Laughs are rare at Christmas. You get quite a few here.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street (upstairs, above the Jean Shelton Theater)
San Francisco
Wed.-Sat. through January 12 $18-$36