Thursday 4 December 2014

Get bent at A Twisted Christmas Carol

Quicky overview : A night of rollicking spontaneous goofiness awaits you with ACT's A Twisted Christmas Carol at its cozy Revue Stage. Based notionally on the Charles Dickens 1843 classic novella, the goofiness comes from the fact that improv is the centrepiece of the action. The thread of pre-scripted dialogue seems largely incidental but can't be because thirteen [13!] writers are credited in the program for producing it.

Improv-vet from Vancouver's Rock Paper Scissors comedy troupe David C. Jones came up with the idea for the improv "twist" back in the 90's. After years being workshop'd, the show opened at the Jericho Arts Centre in '98. The current production is an updated reprise from ACT's 2005 G.I. stage production now performed, appropriately enough, in the room previously home to the Vancouver Theatre Sports League. In the words of Director John Murphy, what happens in Twisted is "...we've taken a sacred novel about a sacred time with a serious message and we've sillified it."

Plot refresher : Scrooge is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad employer. And slightly worse a human being just generally. He harasses and dragoons his clerk Bob Cratchit. Cratchit's disabled son Tiny Tim is just more regrettable London detritus. Soon, however, Christmas ghosts appear to him and warn him he courts eternal damnation unless he does a full-psyche re-boot. He sees the light. Generosity, joy, scotch and Big Eats all 'round in the end.

Fact is Charles Dickens' original text is as much excuse for the show as purpose. "Let's give seasoned improv performers free rein" is the idea. And because it's Winterfest, we'll hook it to Dickens' ever-popular Christmas story of Scrooge and his conversion, as if Saul got side-tracked to Bethlehem instead of Damascus.  

What the actors do : What the actors do most is collapse the "fourth wall" between audience and stage. Interaction with folks in the seats is what spikes the evening's fun. Shout-outs are requested and drive subsequent dialogue.  

What is Scrooge's business, his day job, we were asked. What is  Tiny Tim's benign malady du jour ? What famous personage is the first Christmas ghost? On opening night the challenges put to the troupe by my seatmates were these : Scrooge doesn't run a counting house, he runs a gymnast club for Olympic trainees. Tiny Tim suffers ADD. Julius Caesar is the first ghost.

There's a clever Laugh-In style backdrop of opening windows and sitting places and Scrooge's bed and a kitchen incinerator-oven all arranged to resemble a giant advent calendar (for which the original designers won a Jessie). As for the stage action, there but for the period costumes and thread of Dickensian narration, one would think it a typical Theatre Sports night at, say, a Macmillan Bloedel annual general meeting from yesteryear. 

Front row volunteers are asked to provide character ideas : Jaimie suggests nephew Freddie's wife is a hippo with an eating disorder. Catherine, an admin assistant for a uranium firm, went on a Gastown date to the Cork & Fig : this tidbit provides Scrooge's first-date improv scenario. Wendy tells Mrs. Cratchit she wants no part of  Christmas goose but favours giant yams instead, and the on-stage dinner bits go from there. A young Jacob Marley is snatched from the front-row (ACT's Les Miserables actor Jonathan Wimsby by chance...?) : he gets hauled on stage to do some Irish jigging. 

The fun of it all is how the cast runs and plays with each of these characters and their thematic riffs throughout the play. Another part of the fun is that these antics change each night. [In 2008 during one show Scrooge was a chicken plucker. Tiny Tim's malady was diarrhea. Yams were broccoli. You get the idea.] No two nights are supposed to be the same, though I've got a hunch the gymnast and Julius Caesar schticks will likely repeat. 

Production values : Anyone who loves improv can't help but marvel at the work of this group. Reviving her role as Mrs. Cratchit once more, Diana Frances bares her improv chops marvelously throughout, particularly with front-row-Wendy and in the end doing her "verbal charades" with Scrooge (Gary Jones). Jones' comic timing a la Artie Johnson was terrific. His quick and zesty restating of the improv ideas thrown at him delighted and amazed. As narrator Dickens, Kirk Smith had some great double-take Rick Mercer moments. Jeff Gladstone tittered his way throughout. His Tiny Tim ADD antics and lines were gleeful both to see and to hear. For this viewer, however, it was long-time improv-er Bill Pozzobon as Bob Cratchit and Great Caesar's Ghost whose timing and imagination and spitfire dialogue quite frankly stole the show i.m.o. Simply marvelous!

Director John Murphy (a former ACT Scrooge himself) primed his cast perfectly. Costume designer Tyler Tone did an exceptional job throwing period-piece duds on each of the cast, as well as their comic outfits. Spot-lighting by Ted Roberts added to the circus atmosphere, but one technical glitch people sputtered over : the hazer producing London fog nigh unto smoked us all out in the Revue's tight quarters. 

Who gonna like :  This production is sheer fun from start to finish. As mentioned above, its connection to the Festivus Season is largely incidental. But its connection to the funny bone is visceral. If mall shopping and endless t.v. ads for junque are getting you down, Twisted is the perfect pick-me-up to turn you around with its dizzying wit and ditzy characters.

Particulars :  To December 27th at ACT's Revue Stage, Granville Island. Check for various nightly & matinee showtimes.

Script : Based on the novella by Charles Dickens and an idea by David C. Jones. Contributing contemporary writers Tammy Bentz. Toby Berner. Ian Boothby. Chris Casillan. Joe Davies. Diana Frances. Nicholas Harrison. Sharon Heath. Christopher Hughes. David C. Jones. Scott Owen. Michelle Porter. Karen Rose.

Production team :  Director John Murphy. Set Designer Joao Carlos d'Almeida. Set Designer II Michelle Porter. Set Designer III David C. Jones. Costume Designer Tyler Tone. Lighting Designer Ted Roberts. Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs. Apprentice Stage Manager I Ashley Noyes. Apprentice Stage Manager II Jenny Kim. 

Featured actors :  Diana Frances. Jeff Gladstone. Gary Jones. Kirk Smith. Bill Pozzobon.


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