"I wanted to change people! I wanted to hold up the mirror!"
Maybe you wanted to write the great American novel, but now you're writing tech copy for Medtronic. Maybe you wanted to bring justice to the downtrodden, but now you're drawing up corporate real estate contracts. Inspecting Carol's Zorah Bloch (Gail Ottmar) wanted to change the world through theater. Now she finds herself mounting the same community theater production of A Christmas Carol for the 12th year in a row, prodding jaded actors and prostrating herself before the NEA for a grant.
As the director of Soapbox Playhouse, Zorah is bogged down in messy money problems, onstage squabbles, and offstage affairs. The show, written by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Company, surrounds her with a cast of community theater regulars: the sassy child actor, the wide-eyed newcomer, the grande dame, the idealist. Throw in a case of mistaken identity and shop-talk quips like "Of course we're broke, we're an arts organization," and you've got a show sure to be loved by, well, community theater regulars.
But just when you're thinking, "Yadda yadda yadda, B plus," all of that turns out to be an elaborate, act-and-a-half setup for a more rewarding punch line. After the Soapbox players finally lift the curtain on Dickens's classic, the show turns into a Noises Off-style play-within-the-play farce, and the gaffes, blunders, and high jinks have the audience gasping for breath and digging for Kleenex. I'm certain I could hear people squeezing their knees together to keep from peeing their pants. It was that funny.
The cast clearly enjoys the second act as well, finding some of the pace and energy they had lost in the slower parts of the first half. They nail every joke and throw themselves bodily into an exhausting and well-timed series of pratfalls. During this climax, veteran Twin Cities actor Robert-Bruce Brake (as Larry Vauxhall) emerges as a standout. As a talented but prickly actor trying to wring one last drop of meaning out of poor, overplayed Scrooge, he gets to show some depth, which many of the other characters lack.
Mary Jo Pehl (playing M.J. McMann) also gives a solid, convincing performance as the overworked stage director trying to hold the whole slippery mess together, while John Heimbuch, as wannabe actor Wayne Wellacre, invents one of the best bad portrayals of Richard III ever (and when he recycles it for Tiny Tim you might be squeezing your knees together as well).
If you're not lookingfor high jinks, you could let the Jungle Theatre read you a bedtime story. Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood is melodious, lush, and dense with meaning. It's also a little bawdy and a little sad.
While this is not actually a holiday play, director Bain Boehlke presents it, as he has in four previous productions, as a lively reading in a parlor decorated for Christmas. The prose poem, originally written as a radio play, is set in the Welsh seaside town of Llareggub and recounts a spring day from the citizens' vulnerable midnight dreams to their catty gossip, murderous daydreams, and dusky affairs.
Boehlke himself reads the part of First Voice, hypnotically spinning out Thomas's famous rhythms: "Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood." The rest of the uniformly strong cast follows his lead, digging deep into the text. At one point, Claudia Wilkens sings a song of lost love; her deep alto voice will haunt you for days.