Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge
nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
December 5, 2009
What happens when you give the Ghost of Christmas Past a taser? Or give Ebenezer Scrooge an undiagnosed case of tourette's syndrome? Or when you take one of the lesser characters from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the oft-overlooked Mrs. Bob Cratchit, and ask for her opinion about how things are going for her and the family in the 1840s, only to have her answer by getting drunk and trying to throw herself into the Thames? Well, you get a modern spin on a classic tale, and one that's pretty darned funny, too.
Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge, written by the ever-witty Christopher Durang, starts out familiarly enough. Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by a ghost who shows him how even as a child he was full of "bah, humbug." From there, however, things go rather awry. Durang is a master of putting the "fun" in family dysfunction, and there's no shortage of it here. Who but a modernist would presume anything untoward about the Cratchit family, who are normally seen as a tight-knit, loving bunch who are as selfless as they are poor? In this case, Mr. Bob Cratchit is a nitwit. Most of his children don't have any names (there are 21 of them, but who's counting?). Those who do—Tiny Tim, Little Nell—are, actually, very annoying people. And there at the center of it all sits Mrs. Bob Cratchit. The supposed strong, ever-maternal member of the Cratchit family is sick and tired of, well, being sick and tired. She's also really tired of Bob bringing home foundlings (hence the 21 children).
That last kid is pretty much the straw that breaks this camel's back. Or, maybe it's the voices Mrs. Bob Cratchit is hearing in her head. They're actually those of the Ghost—who plays Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come—and Mr. Scrooge. Seems the Ghost can't quite get her supernatural powers to send herself and Mr. Scrooge to the right time, or keep them invisible, or keep them silent for that matter. Luckily, she has the aforementioned taser for when things get really out of hand. Naturally, they do, and hilarity ensues.
Don't be on the lookout for a happy ending here—you won't find one. Instead, you'll find an ending that, while improbable, gently reminds that you also went along for the ride of believing that someone like Scrooge could actually change and that people who are poor are actually happy. Great story, but the sentiment didn't work in Dickensian England and it doesn't work today, when the parts about the poor not having enough money for presents or a holiday feast are especially, if sadly, as poignant as they were when the story first went into print.
Director Trey Compton, however, doesn't get bogged down in the possible politics of the piece. Nah, instead he just wants to have fun with it, and to make the audience laugh. Compton has a great sense of comedic timing, which an author like Durang demands, and he gets support from a great ensemble cast who seem game for pretty much anything. They all have a keen sense of physicality, well on display here, and make the whole production look like a lot of fun rather than work. That's rarely the case with theatre these days, where everything is very serious business. Here the amount of work put into the show is obvious—indeed, it takes a lot to get that many actors, the lights, set, sound, costumes, songs, and snarky Christmas spirit to gel—but I always find one of the main production values of the pieces at the Gallery Players is one of enjoyment, for the actors and audience alike. During Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge I felt like I was in on the joke, laughing right along with those telling it.
I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, funniest moment of the show, and that's a good thing. Just when you think it can't get any funnier or more bizarre, it does. And there's a send-up, not a mockery, thankfully, of every holiday cliche you can think of. The whole ensemble, right down to Tiny Tim, gleefully takes to task the ridiculous notion that the holidays are a happy, fun time upon which we make cherished memories. I can't say much without giving away punchlines and gags, so suffice to say that each performer gets his or her moment to steal the show, and does so with zeal.
The production team gets in on the act, so to speak, as well, placing gags in Lilia Trenkova's apt set design and offering some subtler humor in Steven Manuel's costumes (see: the ghost of the young Jacob Marley). It never ceases to amaze me how resourceful these folks are in using modern materials to create a time past and really bring us into that world. David Roy's lighting and sound are a testament to why it's essential to do them right. These elements keep the mood of the show right where it needs to be (never an easy task and one that often goes unthanked). Jason Burrow's musical direction keeps the pace steady and the energy rolling.
Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge is definitely the antidote for those suffering from the syrupy schmaltz so often associated with holidays. It's also a great version of the Dickens tale, which we've all seen one too many times by now. If you see one holiday show this season, I recommend this one. It's modern, funny, refreshing, and filled with spirit: the sassy kind, mind you, that would rather be singing Billie Holiday—but spirit nonetheless.