Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Christmas Carol about Dickens writing "A Christmas Carol"

Dickens (Greg Alexander) agonizes over a blank page as his publisher, Rick Kieber, demands a Christmas story.

Riddle for the season: How many versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” can we digest between now and NewYear’s Day? A lot depends on the ingenuity, wit and charm of the script, direction and performers. As for the version now on stage at the B Street Theatre, as part of its Family Series, you won’t be disappointed unless you’re anticipating the story Dickens wrote.

As far as we can see, the only flaw in the show is in the title, which could mislead casual theatergoers into expecting another faithful adaptation of Dickens’ beloved Christmas tale.

Thanks to the prodigious comic imagination of playwrights Buck Busfield and David Pierini, familiar names among B Street’s artistic pantheon, what we get is a fresh and delightful take on a yarn as traditional as Santa Claus and the nose of an alcoholic reindeer. It’s a show happily earning the category of “family” entertainment—as much fun for adults as for kids.

The scene opens on Christmas Eve at a tavern in Victorian England, owned by a crusty and big-voiced Miss Havisham (Jamie Jones), who warns all females in earshot to beware of men, because they’ll “crush you.” Waiting tables is the dainty and generous Alice (Sara Perry), and the guests include a suave, chess-playing Uriah Heep (Josiah Correll) and a Scrooge-like Charles Dickens (Greg Alexander), clutching a quill as he desperately searches for an idea to meet his deadline for a Christmas novel.

His outsized newspaper publisher, Sidney (Rick Kieber), arrives and demands the novel post-haste. Dickens in turn rebuffs and fires his impoverished illustrator Caleb Plummer (Jason Kuykendall) who offends him with pictures of happy people. Also on the scene is a vicar (Dan Harlan) whose plea for alms for the poor is likewise dismissed by the flinty Dickens. (Does all this sound familiar?)

Harlan returns in another guise, a bearded thief in black (also later as Fagin, familiar to readers of “Oliver Twist”) and deftly picks pockets. When Alice tries to knock him unconscious with a hammer, she misses and instead knocks out Dickens. From there we get a dream that, naturally, parallels the plot of the original. When Dickens awakes we also get a surprise ending.

With deft directing by Erin Island and Jerry Montoya, the fast-paced romp (an hour and a half, divided into two acts) draws laughs of recognition from savvy adults while holding the attention of youngsters. Part of the fun is catching allusions to other works by Dickens, including (besides “Oliver Twist”) “David Copperfield,” “The Cricket on the Hearth,” and “Great Expectations.”

The play also draws something from Dickens’ own life, with reference to his father, who spent time in Debtors Prison, and Dickens as a boy (Galen Howard) cleaning boots in a factory—the real Dickens, though, was only seven when he held that job.

Other than Alexander and Jones, the rest of this strong cast appear in dual roles, except for Jen Mears who appears as three characters. Kat Bayley provides colorful period costumes, and Shawn Weinsheink offers a fluid set, mostly a couple of tables, quickly moved by a pair of stagehands in hooded brown cloaks.

“A Christmas Carol” runs through January 4 at the B Street Theatre, 2711 B Street, behind the Stanford Park Baseball Field at 27th and C Streets. Performances generally run Saturday and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Holiday performance schedules vary from December 21st through January 3 as follows:

Sunday, Dec. 21: additional 7:00 p.m. performance.
Tuesday, Dec. 23: 1:00 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 26: 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 27: additional 7:00 p.m. performance.
Tuesday, Dec. 30: 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Wednesday, Dec. 31: 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 2: 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 3: additional 7:00 p.m. performance.

The play is recommended for age five and up. Tickets are $18 for children, $25 for adults. Call the box office at 916-443-5300. For more about B Street, click the title of this post.

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