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Have Yourself A Silly Little Christmas With ‘Christmas Caper’

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 By John Quinn, EncoreMichigan

The famous last words are attributed to many English actors – Kean, Wolfit, Shaw – but, the story goes, a deathbed visitor comforted the soon-to-be-dearly-departed by saying, “Dying must be hard.” “No,” quipped the thespian, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard!” That may be overstating the case, but make no mistake. Comedy is structured. Ignore the rules and your night of comedy becomes a night of missed opportunities.

It is regretful that Broadway Onstage’s original comedy “The Christmas Carol Caper, Scrooge This!” is so full of missed opportunities because Dennis Wickline’s plot is a dilly. It continues through December 23 at Broadway Onstage, 21517 Kelly Rd., Eastpointe.

The Tawas Bay Regional Acting Company is raising the curtain on its annual charity production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” But Sam Gorning, insufferable womanizer and perennial Ebenezer Scrooge, isn’t there. Also missing is bosomy Lani Wickersham, who plays all the ghosts.

Stepping into their shoes are understudies Olin Mickelhoff (Dennis Wickline) and Penelope Pendleton (Sara Felarca). This complicates the production, because Penelope is also stage manager, which leaves the lights and sound in the ham-fisted care of inexperienced actors. As clues begin to indicate that foul play is responsible for the MIAs, Police Chief Erma (Elizabeth Rager) and her assistant Herb (John Arden McClure) decide to solve the mystery while the show goes on. How convenient (and coincidental!) that they’re both in the cast.

Now back to the structure of comedy. “The Christmas Carol Caper” is a play within a play, a wickedly difficult form to pull off. It requires actors playing actors playing characters. Comedy always calls for lightning-quick pacing and authoritative stage blocking, but most importantly calls for lines delivered with conviction, without hesitation.

Our cast is not yet up to the challenge. To that, add the extra burden of delineating the basic characters in the “Caper” from the assumed characters in the “Carol.” It should come as no surprise that Dennis Wickline, as Olin/Scrooge, pulls this off best. Wickline the actor understands Wickline the playwright’s intent. His Shakespearian declamation of the Dickens lines is a fine contrast to his meeker “out of character” asides.

Here is an aside about theater structure and missed opportunities: The draperies that mask the backstage areas, the “wings,” from audience view are called “tormentors.” The set for “The Christmas Carol Caper” consists of a small “stage” with wings to the right and left. Frequently scenes are played simultaneously in all three areas.

Yet the tormenters are inexplicably hung with the outer edge showing rather than the full drape facing the audience. This makes for some clumsy entrances and exits and fails to “frame” the playing areas. In addition, the lighting fails to suitably direct our attention, and what might be an attempt to mimic the hapless cast’s confusion is merely distracting.

But, oh, what comic bits could be milked out of those curtains! Games of hide and seek, mysterious appearances of props, hands and heads inappropriately in audience view. After all, indications are that the Tawas Bay Regional Acting Company’s annual show is really awful even in the best of years. In addition, the additional width would provide a clean, visual break as actors move from Wickline’s characters to Dickens’.

Though in a holiday season a laugh fest is heartily welcome, this Christmas goose is a tad underdone.

For tickets and showtimes, visit EncoreMichigan.com.

John Quinn reviews local theater productions for www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.

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