God Help Us, Everyone

Ha ha humbug: In Plano Rep's Inspecting Carol, Cliff Stevens is a Spanish-spouting Scrooge and Kateri Cale is his neurotic director.

Cross Noises Off with Waiting for Guffman and you get Inspecting Carol, Daniel Sullivan's two-act comedy now playing to well-deserved laughs at Plano Repertory Theatre. This backstage farce about a struggling theater company's disastrous production of the Dickens Christmas classic builds to a loud, slap-happy conclusion and serves as a welcome diversion from the current glut of Ebenezers and Fezziwigs gallumphing across local stages.

In this Carol, the young actor (Landon Owen) cast as Tiny Tim in the play-within-the-play has hit puberty a bit too soon. He's grown so big, Bob Cratchit (Ted Wold) has taken to wearing a truss and whining about backaches from hoisting the lad on his shoulders. "He's supposed to be tiny," cries Cratchit. "That's his name."

A towering Tim and a cowering Cratchit aren't the only problems the cash-poor Soapbox Theatre faces during rehearsals of A Christmas Carol. Volatile director Zorah Bloch (Kateri Cale) isn't quite over her drunken one-nighter with Cratchit. The actor playing the ghosts (Jerry Pinkard) tends to blank out on dialogue and refuses to wear the smelly black cape Zorah's husband had on when he hanged himself.


Inspecting Carol / Christmas at Ground Zero / The Learned Ladies

Inspecting Carol continues at Plano Repertory Theatre through December 22. Call 972-422-7460.

Christmas at Ground Zero continues at the Bath House Cultural Center through December 21. Call 214-948-3675.

The Learned Ladies continues at Quad C's Black Box Theatre through December 15. Call 972-881-5809.

Scrooge (Cliff Stevens) won't stop grousing about being fired the previous year for lapsing into Spanish during a particularly boring performance. Now he's so sick of the sticky-sweet play he wants to rewrite the script to explore Tiny Tim's "emerging sexual confusion," and he begs Zorah to cut the happy ending to "play against strong audience expectation."

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Amid all this, the business manager (R Bruce Elliott) announces that the new computer has swallowed the names of 2,000 subscribers, and the National Endowment for the Arts has suspended its yearly grant, pending investigation by a visiting cultural evaluator. When a newcomer (Jon Paul Burkhart) pops through the door, Zorah and her crew wonder if he's really an actor late for an audition or an undercover NEA operative checking out the theater.

Director Raphael Parry and his cast kick this tale of mistaken identities and amateur actors into cartoony mega-mayhem early on and stay over-the-top all the way through. The frantic pace produces lots of laughs but obliterates some of the subtler messages in Sullivan's play, namely the digs at the NEA's preference for funding bizarre works of "performance art" while leaving small regional theaters out in the cold. There's also some commentary that gets lost about the ridiculous attitudes among even the lowest-level actors about their "process." But Parry's meticulously choreographed slapsticky surprises at the end of Act 2 are worth all the overacted shouting and arm-waving leading up to them.

Best performances come from Ted Wold, one of Dallas' busiest and most reliable light-comedy actors, as the whiny guy playing Cratchit, and Jon Paul Burkhart as the ambitious but wildly untalented young thesp who stumbles in and is embraced (for the wrong reasons) by the Soapbox players. Jerry Pinkard is very good as an actor hired for "diversity" and unable to remember his lines when the curtain goes up. Cliff Stevens gets some great mileage out of his role as the frustrated agitprop actor miserable at being stuck in the Scrooge suit for yet another season.

Ground Zero Theater Company's treat to holiday theatergoers is its annual festival, Christmas at Ground Zero at the Bath House Cultural Center, offering an evening of 10 new mini-plays (just 10 or 15 minutes each) taking off on some aspect of the holidays. This year's collection is brightly written (by participants in a recent playwrights' workshop) and strongly acted. All the plays are directed by Elizabeth Ware.

My faves were two sharply paced comedies, The Surprise Party by Garrett Moran, Chad Sullivan and Michael Pasion and Ornaments by Valerie Brogan Powell.

In the first, God (Regan Adair) holds a meeting of saints to decide how best to carry out a surprise birthday party for you-know-who. Wearing spiked hair and glittery pants, like some junior programming exec at MTV, God demands ideas. Funny costumes? Did that for All Saints' Eve. Big pink bunny? Already booked for Easter. Saint Thomas (Chris Hauge) has doubts, and besides, wasn't the resurrection enough of a surprise? "He came back from the dead. I've never seen that before," he says.

The Surprise Party is zippy, hip and hilarious.

Ornaments is a what-if conversation between three front-of-the-tree decorations: a tattered homemade paper Snowflake (Chris Hauge), giggly wooden Angel (Lydia Mackay) and haughty blown-glass Harlequin (Regan Adair again, and this guy is talented).

Harlequin, the last of 12 imported fancy pieces, is terrified of errant cats and flimsy hanging hooks. "God, I hate being out of my tissue," he moans.

Angel dreams of being kissed, and Harlequin tells her she's been "hanging too near the bubble lights."

All three fear being broken or replaced, a fate that results in "the dustpan, the big can and the long, dark trip to the alley."

The moral of the story is sweet and lightly played. The lives of these little ornaments, sentimental symbols of family life and holidays past, are just as flimsy and subject to breakage as the lives and relationships of the people who hang them on the tree.

Out at Quad C Theatre in Plano, there are still a few more performances of Molière's The Learned Ladies, and it's a production worth catching, especially if you're Scrooged out and in need of the happy vibes of a frothy period comedy dressed up in pretty frocks worn by pretty girls.

Spoken in verse (from a translation by Richard Wilbur), the play wittily satirizes the intellectual pursuits of a rich, pretentious mother named Philaminte (Rebecca McDonald), her daughter Armande (Sarah Saunders, a Courteney Cox look-alike) and sister-in-law Belise (Lindsay Huntoon). The three are enthralled with books, art, astronomy and the philosophical musings of a poet manqué named Trissotin (J-M Specht). Philaminte wishes her younger daughter Henriette (Stephanie Lamoureux) would marry the prissy Trissotin, but the girl prefers the more down-to-earth, plainspoken Clitandre (Michael Maresca).

A battle of wills ensues when Philaminte's husband, Chrysale (Alexander Scott Hargis), tries to engineer the marriage of Henriette and Clitandre without risking his wife's considerable rage.

Directed by Gail Cronauer, The Learned Ladies is as light and sweet as a well-made meringue. The cast of students handles the verse with great flair, letting the language fall trippingly from their tongues. Only Lamoureux, a Renée Zellweger pout-alike, lets her dialogue as Henriette fall into singsongy rhythms.

The tall lemon-yellow set by Craig "Yo" Erickson and the fussy, bustled costumes by Robin Armstrong are delicious in every detail. Even the curtain call is choreographed with period touches as the cast pairs up for a dainty minuet before flouncing up the steps and out the door.

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