What's a theater company to do when December rolls around? Well, you could always trot out A Christmas Carol again. It sure puts butts in seats, which may be why some troupes opt to run their productions of the Dickens perennial through July or so a veteran scene-watcher lies in the hilarious, scorched-earth-and-mistletoe introduction to Every Christmas Story Ever Told!, the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's knowing sendup of all things Noel.
While others bet the farm on Fezziwigian familiarity, OSF is hammering out a bolder tradition, that of using its annual PlayFest new-play festival (now the Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays) as the incubator for holiday shows that can shoot some rejuvenating comic voltage through Santa's fat and lazy carcass. Last year's fun The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge charted such a path from staged reading to main-stage hit; to the list we can now add Every Christmas Story … , in which a trio of wonderfully agile actors deconstructs the entire mythology of the season. Theatergoers whose formative image of Kris Kringle had him riding atop a Norelco razor are definitely the show's generational target market, but there's something in here to tweak everybody's mind-set, from a nutty recounting of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer legend (with goats in place of deer, for legal reasons) to a running social-studies lesson in the Christmas customs of other lands. Outside the U.S., we're told, observances have a markedly sinister edge, with celebratory lutefisk meals barely masking the trauma of violent punishments dispensed by disapproving Claus-alikes. Bleed for that Xbox, Torsten!
The play makes use of a small arsenal of costumes, props and gaudy effects, but its success rests on the shoulders of the three co-stars, each of whom maintains a clearly delineated character type while donning and doffing holiday accouterments. Timothy Williams plays the verbose know-it-all, tossing out annoying factoids and using a fruitcake-themed game show as the forum to determine exactly how attractive the audience finds him. Philip Nolen, meanwhile, cuts an overgrown-toddler figure that can convey an absurd innocence, as when he literally crawls into another performer's lap for reassurance at a vulnerable moment. Finally, Eric Hissom is the vain master thespian who wants to junk all this experimental jazz and get on with his long-awaited starring role in you guessed it A Christmas Carol. In the cosmology of Every Christmas Story …, this makes him the antagonist.
The show was first conceived as a vehicle for out-of-state writer/actors John Alvarez, Jim Fitzgerald and Michael Carleton, the latter of whom joined Hissom and Nolen for a staged reading of it at last January's PlayFest. Since them, some scripted passages have been tightened up and others added. Almost every change is an improvement. Yet it's the addition of Williams that really brings the show to life. To cite but one difference, Carleton was content to act the wounded stooge when his castmates forced him to wear the antlers of the Grinch's dog, Max; Williams nails that mortification and then segues into a momentary but nicely observed bit of cheerful tongue-wagging. At such moments, the play accomplishes the small miracle of making all Christmas myths seem both utterly ridiculous and absolutely essential. Yes, Virginia, you can have your fruitcake and eat it, too.
Every Christmas Stroy Ever Told!
Through Dec. 24
Lowndes Shakespeare Center