Christmas? Don't make me laugh!

Christmas? Don't make me laugh!

Ojai production gets jolly with it

By Kit Stolz 12/11/2008

kitstolz@gmail.com

Every family has its own Christmas traditions, but Irene Dickstein of Orange County could probably say with confidence that hers is unique. Each year for the last decade, she and her significant other search out a production of the uproarious comedy Inspecting Carol, even if it means driving for hours. This year she was thrilled to find a production relatively close to home, at Ojai’s Theater 150, and reports that it was “right up there” with the best they’ve seen.

“After last year, my husband said he might have to put a mileage limit on how far we would go,” Dickstein said, “but we really enjoyed what they did with it at Theater 150. They just nailed scene after scene. They redeemed our faith in the play.”

This is Theater 150’s second annual production of Inspecting Carol, featuring a cast almost identical to last year’s, and the hilarity flows, start to finish. The lines remain the same, but the set is greatly improved, and actors have grown into their characters, all of whom are so obsessed with their own little problems that they are completely unable to see the overall absurdity of their predicament.

The plot is simple: On the eve of the opening of its annual staging of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, Murphy’s Law strikes the imaginary Soapbox Theater with a vengeance. Tiny Tim is being played by an 11-year-old who has been eating way too many bon bons. The actor playing Bob Cratchit can barely carry the “crippled” kid to dinner, but worse, Cratchit had a drunken fling with the flamboyant director Zorah Block, and no matter how brutally she tells him it’s over, he can’t forget, which makes him ornery.

The actor playing Scrooge was recently left by his wife, who took everything, so he has turned into a radical leftist, determined to remake the play to suit his politics. And, due to a tiny misunderstanding, a young actor, possibly the least-talented thespian in the history of the theater, has been mistaken for a grant-giver from the all-powerful National Endowment for the Arts. To keep her theater afloat, director Zorah feels she must cater to his every whim, even when he insists on tormenting his fellow performers with his ludicrously over-the-top auditions.

This bad-actor role is played by the rubber-limbed David Rogge without an ounce of self-awareness. His character will do anything on stage to make an impression, no matter how preposterous. Fellow performer Ray Singer, who has performed on Broadway before turning to writing, looks at Rogge’s athletic performance with a certain amount of awe.

“I think David Rogge’s the reincarnation of Dick Van Dyke,” Singer says.     Singer himself plays the somewhat thankless role of the theater accountant, a Nervous Nellie and straight man to the diva Zorah, Yet he brings a fine hand-wringing desperation to the part, perfectly balancing his character’s abject fear of Zorah against his equally paralyzing fear that the entire production will collapse, leaving him and the other founding members saddled with debt.

Singer knows the creator of the play, theater impresario Daniel Sullivan, from his early days as an actor in New York. Singer said the play evolved out of a “gang bang” style improvisation in which the company at Sullivan’s Seattle theater company conspired to bring out the comedy of the piece.

“That kind of writing process doesn’t usually work this well,” said Theater 150 artistic director Deb Norton. She recalls her producing partner Chris Nottoli being so overcome with laughter the first time he read the script that she was actually a little worried about him because he couldn’t get words out and his shirtfront was wet with tears.

The play has plenty of wit and no shortage of slapstick, but its real magnificence lies in the laughs the company gets out of purely visual moments. Many of these moments belong to actor Chris Wood, who, despite his innate dignity, is forced to put on the most preposterous outfits imaginable: a sombrero, a bandolier and a diaper. Together. The look on his face at having to appear in public in this get-up is worth the price of admission alone.   

Theater 150 in Ojai through Dec. 28. 316 E. Matilija St., Ojai. 646-4300, www.theater150.org.

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