Mrs. Bob Cratchit Teaches That Christmas Is Full Of Everything

cratchit“What if (mother) *is* dead? Think how pathetic I’ll be then!” – Tiny Tim, Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge

Playwright Christopher Durang’s absurdly irreverent take on A Christmas Carol wears its cynical, hardened heart on its sleeve, ensuring that the titular Mrs. Cratchit negatively invokes the word “pathos” repeatedly in order to drive home the fact that she (meaning Durang) has had enough of manipulative Christmas sentimentality. Or something like that. By the end of Christmas Binge, we’re exhausted from laughing, still mostly filled with good cheer and actually hoping for Scrooge to stay mean. Contemporary Theater Company, under the guidance of visiting Director Kira Hawkridge, has produced the ultimate contrary Christmas show, where a meta-aware Ghost attempts to show Ebenezer the error of his ways, only to be derailed by faulty magic and the unexpected rebellion of Mrs. Cratchit who speaks for mothers everywhere. Gladys Cratchit (delivered with a joyful nastiness by a powerful Christine Cauchon) is the supreme holiday anti-hero, but we still want to take the kids to see her story before caroling and eggnog.

CTC mainstay Amelia Giles, as the Ghost, owns the stage with a subtle excellence that puts all of her considerable skills at the forefront. She takes the opening song in a show that is not quite a musical but features four songs that lambaste the Christmas play clichés, while still sounding authentic in a Monty Python kind of way. Giles’ Ghost is cheerful, yet practical, assuming that not everyone is along for the cloying ride of redemption (“How many of you just don’t care?” she asks, realistically and without judgment), showing off her comic timing and allowing her to drive the show through all of its barely controlled chaos (her father, Ron Giles, portrays a swaggeringly grouchy Scrooge and we wonder if her repeated Taser jolts to Ebenezer – you have to see it to understand – bring any subversive glee). “I don’t know. I’m confused,” is the laconic refrain of the Ghost, as time travel randomly occurs like a Very Special Episode of Quantum Leap.

As the absurdity mounts, the fabric of the original Dickens tale is fantastically infused with jolts of characters and elements from other stories, both real and imagined. Kenneth Lay’s bogus energy units become a key plot device, as does It’s A Wonderful Life (allowing delicious cameos from Andrew Katzman and Charlie Santos). Cauchon’s Mrs. Cratchit pops in and out of scenes meant for others and hilarious anachronisms and overheard dialogue eventually bring Gladys to the belief that she is blissfully and wildly insane. Her binge consists of tequila sunrises and offhanded suicide attempts, and her downward spiral becomes the stuff of true comedy. Her horrible insults to her husband and children are only overshadowed by the children themselves (most of whom live unseen in the root cellar). Grace Van Dale looks like a Tiny Tim from central casting, but has some of the most wonderfully wry dialogue in the script. Van Dale even hobbles with joyful derision.

Ashley Macamaux’s Little Nell stands out as well as another slight literary intrusion and she takes Durang’s skewering of pathos to hilarious extremes, especially in a perverse family feast in which one child finally earns an actual name, a goose is destroyed and cuddled and hamburgers save the day. Mia Rocchio delivers some very fun character work as both a Dutch wife (in a gleefully ridiculous scene with Katzman) and a mock Roma Downey from “Touched by an Angel.” Rico Lanni joins Katzman at CTC once again for a few moments of jolly drag and some great character work of his own. Valerie Tarantino and Terry Simpson are electrically buffoonish Fezziwigs who get trapped in between worlds as they transition to a plot from Oliver Twist while we gamely follow.

And there are many more in this cast delivering their own terrific ensemble work, which is one of Hawkridge’s emerging trademarks as a director in RI Theater. Hawkridge handles large casts in small spaces with aplomb and her discriminating eye tailors that staging to the play rather than simply making pretty pictures out of large groups. Even the children here, another often painful requisite element of most stagings of Christmas Carol, are seamlessly incorporated into the larger cast with an (and this is important) intentional nod to how they are obviously used as devices to invoke sympathy. The script makes it easy, but Hawkridge makes it part of her own style and none of the child actors here ever appear to be what is often the weakest link in these types of shows.

At this point it is clear that Christmas Binge is simply not one of those types of Christmas shows. As insane as the story becomes (and it gets fairly out there), Durang and Hawkridge still keep us hoping for all to be well. However, they never let us off the hook with a perfectly answered question or even a perfectly happy ending. The play tells us that Christmas, like life, is full of everything – life, death, kids, booze, food, pyramid schemes, sex, hilarity, music, charity, mean bosses and disco. Christmas isn’t for everybody, but if it’s your bag, then you might as well enjoy the hell out of it. That goes for Christmas plays as well, and if you’ve had your fill of the pious and ordinary, then CTC’s current offering just might be the one that fits your particular notions of what the season is all about.

The Contemporary Theater Company presents Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge Dec 18-20 at 7 pm; Dec 21 at 2 and 7 pm. Call 401.218.0282 or visit contemporarytheatercompany.com for tickets and details.

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