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And to All a Good Night

Good child: Steven Sickles and Brendan Chilelli in A Christmas Carol.

Ever since Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and his band of Claymated misfits fled the North Pole's hidebound environs, Santa's helpers have had a hard time keeping their nonconformist attitudes in check. It's not unusual, for example, for shopping-mall elves to adorn their ears with tree ornaments, coin suggestive greetings or snarl at misbehaving children while pretending to be charming pixies.

Although such upstart behavior might put a snag in the stockings of shoppers who like their Santas Burl Ives-jolly and their elves Danny Kaye-giddy, the increasing popularity of offbeat holiday plays has afforded theatergoers some welcome alternatives to the season's ample supply of golden-glow fare. As a pair of Denver-area productions attest, the less-traveled holiday road features unexpected pleasures and unforeseeable pitfalls: Apply too thick a cynical tone and satire can turn caustic; remove too much spontaneity, on the other hand, and even the most intriguing adaptation of a classic starts to show its age.

Indeed, as a beleaguered arts writer observes in Front and Center With Theodora Bristol, the Christmas season's slew of "bad movies, unforgivable television and bad theater" proves daunting for even the most masochistic of spectators. Furthermore, warns critic Theodora Bristol (McPherson Horle), the humdrum holiday offerings she writes about aren't limited to tired endeavors such as the local dinner theater's production of "Come (Pause) Blow Your Horn." Yuletide mediocrity, which Bristol intends to eradicate, can be traced to the amateurish goings-on that pervade most elementary-school pageants. As the ever-vigilant (and sometimes vengeful) reviewer explains, "If there is a cancer, it's best to treat it as early as possible."

The ten-minute piece is part of the Bug Theatre's twin bill of monologues by radio personality David Sedaris, a regular on NPR's Morning Edition. In addition to serving as a tidy curtain-raiser, the lecture/diatribe, which Horle delivers directly to the audience, is also a clever way to short-circuit critical opinion before the Bug's main event begins. Unfortunately, Horle quickly settles into a cynical rut that belies her character's mounting horror at having to endure an endless series of theatrical debacles. By the time she relates her displeasure concerning an eleven-year-old's ability to single-handedly ruin her school's Christmas show, Horle's monotonous rant becomes as predictable as the lackluster events that Theodora supposedly takes pleasure in hating. Even though Horle's verbal salvos might be well-aimed, they'd be twice as funny if she were to utter them with bemused disbelief instead of embittered contempt; adopting a more restrained, witty approach would take some of the venom out of this sendup and lend it some much-needed verisimilitude. As it stands, the brief work winds up saying more about the frustrations of performers than the failings of critics.

The atmosphere brightens somewhat at the top of The SantaLand Diaries, Sedaris's 55-minute monologue (adapted by Joe Mantello) about an unemployed college graduate's travails as a department-store elf. After introducing himself to the audience and noting that he's only "twenty dollars away from walking dogs," David (Gary Culig) comes to the conclusion that his pursuit of lofty academic goals has had the unanticipated effect of leaving him without a skill with which to earn a living. In a weak moment, he applies for a job entertaining the hordes of holiday shoppers -- and their ill-mannered, rabid offspring -- who descend on Macy's Herald Square shopping mecca with misplaced messianic zeal.

An affable, diminutive actor with quirky, giant-killing instincts, Culig seems well-suited to impersonate an egghead with a sick sense of humor who's forced to lead a double life as the upbeat Crumpet the Elf. The actor is especially effective during episodes of quiet detachment and reflection, such as when he tells us about a particular Santa who has an endearing way with children or when he confesses his feelings for an elf from Queens named Snowball. When he attempts to eat his lunch while clad in a green velvet smock and red and white candy-striped stockings, Culig's hollow-eyed, grimaced countenance brings to mind the animated slouch made famous by Dr. Seuss's acerbic Grinch.

Culig is also adept at putting a falsely euphoric spin on some of the ridiculous terminology and cheers that Crumpet is forced to learn while enduring Elf Training, a series of mandatory courses that he humorously weathers with Richard Simmons-like effusiveness, lisp and all. And his efforts are nicely complemented by Alex Weimer's festive setting, which consists of several strings of lights, a doorway framed by a tree with cottony foliage and a throne area that glows with satanic graffiti during a rare moment of unbridled hilarity.

But rather than pique the imagination by relying on his talent for suggestion (this fall, Culig turned in a fine, lyrical performance as Judas in the Theatre Group's production of Corpus Christi), Culig cudgels the mind by blaring his lines as if he were an adolescent on hormonal overdrive. Part of the problem is that Culig and director Matthew Howard fail to demonstrate an adequate understanding of the play's overall structure and arc. Instead of punctuating the ends of scenes with physical flourishes or beginning new episodes with renewed vocal vigor, Culig sometimes shuffles off into the dimly lit nether regions of the stage as his voice drifts off and the next scene awkwardly begins. Just as David/Crumpet finishes telling the audience about Billie Holiday's rendition of "Away in a Manger," for instance, Culig weakly attempts to croon a few bars and then abruptly turns away, paces to another part of the playing area and continues his rambling narrative. Even if he's supposed to be flubbing the song, he doesn't know it nearly as well as he should. Most of the other transitions appear similarly disjointed and under-rehearsed.

Moreover, Culig's delivery sometimes seems more antagonistic than mischievous, an annoyance that can be traced directly to the playwright's strident tone (apparently Sedaris was unable to find any other group of New Yorkers to denigrate besides retarded children and boorish suburban louts). Culig blunts the impact of some of the more overbearing moments and manages to finish the play on a relatively poignant note. Even so, it seems a shame that director Howard couldn't elicit a more thoughtful, considered and precise portrayal from his star performer. Or that Sedaris couldn't resist peppering his mildly amusing spoof with an abundance of crass, juvenile humor.

By contrast, Doris Baizley's adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol proves that alternative-style holiday shows can provoke and intrigue without resorting to cheap jokes or maudlin anecdotes. The Aurora Fox Theatre's version uses a number of traditional theatrical elements to put an interesting twist on a recognizable story.

The seventy-minute play-within-a-play begins as a harried stage manager (Steven Sickles) enters and bellows a few pre-show instructions to unseen stagehands. He's joined by a prop boy (Brendan Chilelli) and several other performers who work for a turn-of-the-century theater company located "somewhere in the United States of America." In due time, we learn that the actor who normally plays the role of Ebenezer Scrooge has unexpectedly left the company in order to raise potatoes in a foreign country, an odd (though completely understandable) turn of events that compels the stage manager to play the part. Although Sickles initially objects to being saddled with additional responsibility, the company's director (Phil Bernier) points out that the backstage traffic cop's demand for an increase in pay demonstrates that he's perfectly suited to portray a miser in need of a lesson in generosity.

The work doesn't always glisten with professional polish, and some of the actors have become too comfortable with the show's peaks and valleys to make this journey toward redemption seem as spontaneous as it should. After all, the whole point of putting Scrooge through a suspenseful re-examination of his past, present and future is to evoke similar feelings of introspection from audience members. Thankfully, director Don Bill keeps the action moving at a decent clip and employs a number of inventive touches that help to sustain the production's momentum.

In fact, apart from a few groaners (a large wrapped package represents the Ghost of Christmas Present) and moments of forced conviviality, most of the production's contrivances add to the audience's enjoyment of this old chestnut. That's especially true of the antics of a trio of clowns (David Loda, Jane Phillips and Scott Merchant), who huddle together to represent Scrooge's closet, don gloves and dive behind a ubiquitous wooden prop trunk to depict a fire-glowing hearth, and play a host of supporting characters throughout. In addition to turning in a robust performance as the director, Bernier lends authority to his portraits of the apparition of Scrooge's business partner, Jacob Marley, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. Amy F. Moran is appealing in her roles as Scrooge's teenage love interest, Belle, and the wife of Scrooge's nephew, Fred. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, Zoe Lee adequately shepherds the drama through its early, convoluted scenes. And even though Sickles has difficulty reacting to events as if they were happening for the first time -- to both Scrooge and the stage manager who is playing the part on a moment's notice -- he manages to hit his stride midway through and ends the drama on a satisfactory note.

All in all, this community-style effort is enough to cheer purveyors of all things alternative who believe that finding inventive ways to put a fresh face on tradition can be just as much fun as tweaking it.


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