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It's a Wonderful Frosty Red-Nosed Grinch Who Stole the Christmas Carol . . .

And then some at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's holiday production

Yuletide cheers: (left to right) Peter Kendall, John Benoit, and Chris Pfingsten.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/10/2008

A couple years back Christmas time at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival meant artistic director Jimi Kinstle performing the original one-man show A Dickens of a Carol by Kimberley Lynne, deftly combining the well-known tale of Ebenezer Scrooge with the story of Charles Dickensí life. Kinstle left BSF this year for Theatre Project and Michael Carleton has taken over the top post. And with Carleton came another skewed look at the Cratchits: Every Christmas Story Ever Told, written by Carleton, J. Fitzgerald, and J. Alvarez.

If youíve ever seen The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) parody, youíll be familiar with the set up. Three actors run through the highlights of Shakespeare, or in this case beloved Christmas stories, at lightning speed, heavy on the silliness. Fortunately, what this play lacks in originality--seriously, we could do a whole sidebar on the similarities--it makes up for in charm. Actors Peter Kendall, Chris Pfingsten, and John Benoit--playing characters with their same first names--are thoroughly engaging, and while not every joke works, their energy gets you over the rough spots.

"Peter" is the traditionalist and Kendall really carries the show, an impressive feat for someone saddled with being the straight man and the playís killjoy foil. "Chris" is the believer, an unabashed Santa Claus fanatic, and Pfingsten brings a childlike enthusiasm to the show that provides its warm gooey center without getting sickeningly sweet. Benoit bridges the gap between the two, playing the wise-cracking "John," who seems mostly interested in challenging Peter every chance he gets.

The play begins with Peter reading the opening of A Christmas Carol--a treat for Dickens buffs, as few staged versions include the whole whatís-so-dead-about-a-doornail? bit--but he is interrupted by Chris, who refuses to do Dickensí done-to-death play for the millionth time, describing it as little more than ďnice ghost, fat ghost, scary ghost.Ē John agrees, and they convince the reluctant Peter to perform other Christmas stories that they deem more relevant to a modern audience.

They run through How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, highlighting itís similarities to A Christmas Carol and making up their own slightly disturbing Seussian rhymes. Next comes Rankin and Bassí 1964 animated TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer which for reasons of possible copyright infringement they call Gustav the Green-Nosed Reingoat. A riff on fruitcake leads nonsensically to a Dating Game spoof that somehow morphs into a discussion of whether Santa Claus exists or not. A combination that is saved by Johnís sage words to the non-believing Peter that ďwhen you stop believing in Santa Claus, thatís when you start getting clothes for Christmas.Ē The audience is also given a taste of Frosty the Snowman, The Nutcracker (highlighting the bizarreness of its story), and an energetic Snoopy dance that turns into the story of Jesusí birth. And thatís all before intermission.

After intermission, Peter finally gets his wish to do A Christmas Carol, but Chris insists they canít leave out Itís A Wonderful Life, so they end up doing a mash up of the two with Peter playing both Scrooge and George Bailey. Itís the highlight of the show. The pacing is beyond fast, the jokes are sharp, the blending of the two stories is pitch-perfect, and Kendall positively kills it, jumping back and forth between his miserly Scrooge and a hysterical Jimmy Stewart impression.

Not everything works. The holiday fun facts often arenít that fun and the Hanukkah and Kwanza bits are painfully stereotypical. Also, as with the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), Every Christmas Story Ever Told was clearly written with spots for a theater company to put in references to its host city. You can almost feel the ďinsert name of losing sports team hereĒ blank in certain lines. A joke where "Sheila Dixon" was inserted in a slot you can only assume was left blank for an unpopular local politician barely makes sense, and gets no reaction from the audience.

For those who like to watch theater without actually getting involved, be warned that there is some audience participation--though on the night we went both people pulled onstage were local actors who just happened (wink?) to be sitting in the front row. Overall, though, Every Christmas Story Ever Told is a welcome alternative to the usual holiday fare. Itís quick, funny, and allows you to laugh at the time of year that is currently driving you absolutely crazy. What more could you ask for?

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Tags: baltimore shakespeare festival, holiday, christmas

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