Holiday classics need editing, or a long winter”s nap

Nov 27, 2007 at 7:02 pm

Actors Theatre of Louisville is entering its second decade of producing “A Tuna Christmas” and its 32nd straight year of “A Christmas Carol.” The former is in desperate need of a good trim, and the latter just needs to be retired for a few years.

Now, before penning that diatribe, reader, let the record show I recognize the following: “A Christmas Carol” at Actors Theatre is a tradition. For many children, it’s an introduction to professional theater. Families likely depend on it to be basically the same show they saw last year … and the year before that … and the year before that. Furthermore, if ATL altered it too drastically, there’d be no end to the vicious letters they’d receive. On top of all that, it’s a classic, heartwarming story that hopefully prods our materialistic little hearts toward adopting a more generous, altruistic spirit.

But Friday’s opening night performance left me feeling empty. While there are moments of visual treat, overly saccharine performances made me cringe, and the enormous stage is poorly utilized. Artistic director Marc Masterson says in his notes, “Each year we approach these plays asking questions about how we can make them better, keep them fresh….” Frankly, director Sean Daniels failed on that end. This might be one of the least imaginative, most uninspired stagings of the year.

Centering almost all the play’s action on the revolving platform in the middle of the stage makes for cramped groupings and stagnancy. The Fezziwig party scene is boring despite valiant efforts by Katie Blackerby and Mark Sawyer-Dailey to inject it with life; I also feared an actor might slip and fall off the stage during the scene’s dances.

Forced joviality plagues more than a few scenes. Dara Jade Tiller’s (Ghost of Christmas Past) gaiety is obligatory at best. The Cratchit family, with the exception of Mark J. Stringham’s quaintly nerdy Bob, is sickeningly sweet, and the merry party at Fred’s house feels woefully contrived (again, excluding Max Gordon Moore).

“A Tuna Christmas” receives a decidedly different diagnosis. It’s quite funny, thanks to the comedic abilities of Jody Cook and Diane Wasnak, but it’s just too long.

The story revolves around the inhabitants of tiny Tuna, Texas, in the few days before Christmas. The catch is that two actors play all 22 roles; replete with costume changes so quick, doing the show should be considered equivalent to a trip to the gym. Susan Neason’s costumes are a blast, most notably those of mother and daughter Bertha and Charlene Bumiller.

Yet it’s akin to watching sketch comedy, and a little goes a long way. At two hours and 15 minutes, the gag and the story start to wear thin. A second act could be scrapped altogether, making for a tighter show that likely would leave audience members craving more.

For families and those who can’t imagine a holiday season without “A Christmas Carol,” Actors Theatre offers just what’s expected, and those folks won’t be discouraged by a critique. Yet those hoping for innovative theater or surprising, clever twists on holiday entertainment should choose something a little more off-the-beaten-path. I can’t help but suspect the powers that be at ATL are growing a bit restless with their traditions as well. Why else include “The Santaland Diaries” in the seasonal lineup?

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‘A Christmas Carol’
Starring Katie Blackerby, Nathan Gregory, David Hanbury, William McNulty, Max Gordon Moore, Sarah Nealis, Mark Sawyer-Dailey, David Ryan Smith, Mark J. Stringham, Dara Jade Tiller and Sarah Grace Wilson. Directed by Sean Daniels. Continues through Dec. 23.

‘A Tuna Christmas’
Starring Jody Cook and Diane Wasnak. Directed by Drew Fracher. Continues through Jan. 2.
Actors Theatre
316 W. Main St.