Wassail out the Wahzoo with Three Holiday Plays

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, a certain rotund, snow-haired, thrice-married GOP presidential candidate regards poor children as slackers. "It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in child laws which are truly stupid," Newt Gingrich told an audience at Harvard a few weeks ago. He'd like to put 9-year-olds to work as school janitors — thus eliminating jobs for overpaid, unionized adult workers and giving the kids a taste of what Gingrich called the "habits of working." And really, what inspires the dreams of needy children more than a mop and a bucket of bleach?

In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens lets his bitter old one-percenter, Ebenezer Scrooge, put it another way. Asked to contribute a few shillings to help the impoverished on Christmas Eve, Scrooge bellows: "Are there no prisons? Are the workhouses still in operation? The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor then?"

Yes, he is told, all are still there. "Oh!" growls Scrooge. "I was afraid from what you said at first that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course. I'm very glad to hear it."

For Gingrich, espousing programs that will give poor kids punitive jobs that will keep them poor has pushed him to the top of the polls. (Remember when he also suggested that offspring of families on welfare should live in orphanages?) But things take a different turn for Mr. Scrooge, who is made to see the error of his money-worshiping ways through visits by three ghosts one spooky night before Christmas.

When Scrooge awakens from his nightmares, he's a different man, happy, openhearted and open-walleted. The first thing he does is order dinner to be delivered to Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family. Then he goes about making amends to others. One imagines Mr. Gingrich awaking on Christmas morn to present Wife No. 3 with pretty blue boxes filled with gems purchased on his no-interest Tiffany's revolving charge — and maybe calling the cops on any caroling urchins who stop by.

If only Newt the Grinch and others of his ill-thinking ilk could experience Dallas Theater Center's current production of the Dickens classic and absorb its message. As always, the show is splendidly acted. DTC has been using the Richard Hellesen adaptation of A Christmas Carol (with original music by David de Berry) for many seasons now, but they tweak it every time. This year the scary parts are scarier, the funny parts are funnier and sections of script seem to be performed in boldface, especially those lines about the treatment of the underpaid and undernourished.

The pace of this Carol, as directed and choreographed by Joel Ferrell, is dizzying. Making fine use of the Kalita Humphreys Theater's revolving stage, Bob Lavallee's scenery sends furniture and actors swirling and twirling through puffs of gray fog that roll out from the wings whenever the ghosts appear.

Kurt Rhoads is a cracking good Scrooge. Seen earlier this year in DTC's Dividing the Estate, the tall, broad-shouldered actor wears a scary frown and a scraggly white hairpiece for the character; his Scrooge droops under the burden of his own unhappiness. Rhoads has a classical actor's voice full of trills and sharp plosives that are fun to hear. In his transformation from lonely miser to lovable uncle Ebenezer, he somersaults backward over the four-poster bed, suddenly weightless with joy.

New to the Carol cast are DTC company members Abbey Siegworth, as a lithe and silvery Ghost of Christmas Past, and Steven Walters as Scrooge's nephew Fred. Walters also appears in the smaller role of a fey undertaker, allowing him a few moments of broad comedy with another new cast member, Jonathan Brooks, who adds some giddy energy to several supporting roles and gets to scare the kiddies in the first scenes as the chain-clanking Ghost of Jacob Marley. Emily Gray and Brian Gonzalez are marvelous as the tipsy Fezziwigs. Lee Trull is back as weary-but-sweet Bob Cratchit, with Joanna Schellenberg as his wife, who makes it clear she'd rather choke than drink to the health of old Scrooge. And, as the most adorable Tiny Tim DTC has ever had, second-grader Kuran Patel gets to close the show with "God bless us, everyone!" Here's hoping that neither he nor any of his classmates will ever have to scrub a toilet to prove their worth to society.

One Thirty Productions tries something different this year with Greetings!, Tom Dudzick's comedy about a family Christmas interrupted by a mysterious visitor. When Andy (John Venable) brings his atheist fiancée (Julie Osborne) home to Pittsburgh to meet his Catholic parents (Gene Raye Price, Sonny Franks) and his mentally challenged brother Mickey (Ben Bryant), he expects some turmoil. Dad's the Archie Bunker type and his mom's the enabling Edith.

A loud dinnertime argument over religious beliefs is halted by Mickey, who has never said much more than "Oh, wow." He suddenly springs up from the couch, announces in a clipped British accent that his name is "Lucius" and launches into a speech about New Age philosophy. Channeling an ancient entity, Mickey/Lucius says he's there to teach some lessons about forgiveness and "living in the light." And he does just that.

It sounds oogly-woogly, but Greetings!, directed by Terry Dobson, wraps its out-there ideas in broad humor. Bryant has the tough job of clicking back and forth between the roles of the brother and the David Niven-like spirit. Make either too silly and the effect is lost, but Bryant's just right at finding the balance and not playing Mickey with any obvious I Am Sam choices. The whole cast is terrific.

At the opening-day performance, a member of a Baptist group who'd come to the play walked out before it was over and complained to management that he was offended. Hey, One Thirty, you're doing something right.

Theatre Britain up in Plano produces a traditional English "panto" every Christmas and this year's Dick Whittington by Jackie Mellor-Guin, directed by Sue Birch, is a hoot. Pantos offer an old-fashioned fairy tale for the kiddos with plenty of double entendres for the adults to giggle at.

In the drag role of "Dame Overeasy," James Chandler is utterly hilarious, flouncing around in big petticoats and uttering 90 minutes of mild naughties ("I thought Dick looked a little droopy this morning"). Jad B. Saxton is a cutie in the trouser role as the title character, a plucky runaway with a cat (Jean-Luc Hester) as a best friend. Kate Rutledge slithers around as the sexy-evil Queen Rat, whose rat-pack trio of comic rodents is nicely played by Brandon Wilhelm, Chris Sykes and Caitlin Mills. Michael Speck serves as narrator.

Sing-alongs, the appearance of a ghost ("He's right behind you!") and plenty of audience interaction (watch out for Dame Overeasy, the big flirt) are all part of a panto, so play along. This show's so British, they even sell Maltesers and chicken-flavored "crisps" at intermission.