The Ghost of Christmas Humor

University Theater’s hilarious “Inspecting Carol” lampoons Dickens, the theater.

Matt Graham

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Inspecting Carol
WHEN: Now through Dec. 17
WHERE: The University Centennial Showboat, Harriet Island, St. Paul
TICKETS: $27 ($22 for groups of 15 or more), (612) 624-2345, http://theatre.umn.edu/events

it’s the holiday season, and that means it’s time for the local stage titan, the Guthrie Theater, to put on its annual performance of Charles Dickens’ 1843 tale of holiday redemption, “A Christmas Carol.”

The Guthrie is just one of many theaters nationwide to hit upon the idea that you can put on the same Christmas play every year, and the crowds are guaranteed to file in and eat it up – quite the nice safety net for regional theaters, where making a profit is often the most difficult of tasks. But, while the play is almost guaranteed to rake in money, it is often at the expense of artistic merit, as the year in, year out nature of the production lends itself to ossification.

The University Theater’s first holiday production freshens up this yuletide theatrical tradition. “Inspecting Carol” is the story of The Soapbox Playhouse, a regional theater on the verge of bankruptcy counting on its annual production of the Dickens story to save its existence.

Zora Bloch (Cyndy Wrzos), the Soapbox’s wind suit-wearing, short-tempered artistic director, is doing everything she can to keep her theater afloat, even starting a “multicultural initiative” and hiring her first full-time black actor, Wanda (Alicia Dansby) to star in the play. Nevertheless, the theater can’t meet its subscription goals and the National Endowment for the Arts is threatening to cut off its funding pending an artistic evaluation.

When Wayne Wellacre (Noah Hildebrandt), a former data entry worker struggling to make it as a thespian, shows up for audition during rehearsals, Bloch mistakes him for an undercover NEA employee and casts him in the play despite his utter lack of acting talent.

Because it is assumed the cast knows their lines by now, they only have four days to rehearse for the play. But Phil (Matt Roedler), the actor playing Cratchit, has a bad back, romantic qualms and thinly veiled problems with the multicultural initiative. Dorothy (Ashley Kosiak), the actress playing Mrs. Cratchit, has a bad ankle and awful Minnesotan accent. Leah (Kati Cowardin), the actress playing Tiny Tim, leaves to audition for a pilot the night before the play. The newbie Wanda, who plays all the ghosts, can’t learn her changing lines, and Larry (Riley McNutt), the actor playing Scrooge, is a Che Guevara-worshiping socialist utterly unfit to play the world’s most famous miser.

Zora is willing to bend over backwards for Wayne, and Larry convinces him to do a series of rewrites transforming the play into a commentary on America’s involvement in Central America. The resulting chaos leads to an unrecognizable version of the classic tale, and when the real representative from the NEA shows up, she is treated to one of the strangest presentations ever to grace the stage.

Director Gary Briggle’s cast delivers such strong comedic performances across the board that it’s impossible to pick a standout. Maybe it’s just that actors enjoy playing actors, but the entire cast seems energized by the script, whether speaking their lines or flying across the stage wreaking havoc. Yet they can’t take all the credit, and are aided immensely by Mathew LeFebvre’s over-the-top costumes and Sarah Erickson’s mechanized set.

“Inspecting Carol” steadily builds up steam from beginning to end, and the play within the play that closes it out is one of the funniest scenes of physical comedy you’re ever likely to see. In fact, during the final scene it actually became hard to pick out some of the lines because the packed crowd was laughing so hard. It’s a shame, because Daniel Sullivan’s script is dripping with wit, but rare is the play where the sole complaint is too much laughter.