Illegitimate Players

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

The Illegitimate Players, who previously trashed Tennessee Williams and skewered Steinbeck in their shows The Glass Mendacity and Of Grapes and Nuts, have launched a preemptive strike against the Christmas season, which they take on with the deliberate, devilish glee of Charles Addams’s cartoon characters tipping a cauldron of boiling oil onto a cadre of carolers. Their most visible target is Goodman Theatre’s annual staging of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with its unremitting cheeriness and technical flash; beyond that A Christmas Twist attacks the whole range of holiday hype that has long since smothered Dickens’s serious social concerns.

Like its predecessors, this script by actor-playwrights Doug Armstrong, Keith Cooper, Maureen Morley, and Tom Willmorth jams plot elements from several sources into one hilariously unlikely story; the result in this case is a narrative packed with bizarre Dickensian coincidences. Crippled orphan Tiny Twist, when he dares to ask for more gruel, is peddled by workhouse operator Mr. Bumble to Fagin, leader of a gang of preteen pickpockets–never mind that Tiny Twist is tall and 20, despite his outsized 12-year-old’s clothes. Sent off to learn the art of crime under the tutelage of Little Artful Annie, Twist attempts to rob Bob Cratchit, the downtrodden but unshakably optimistic clerk to moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge. Cratchit adopts the lad and takes him home for Christmas dinner and party games–though the lame youth finds Blind Man’s Bluff and Crack the Whip a bit hard to take, not to mention Mrs. Cratchit’s gruel patties. Scrooge, meanwhile, fends off late-night visits from various ghosts, who lead him through memories of childhood bullying (he was the bully) and youthful apprenticeship to idiotic Mr. Fuzzywig (whose endless Christmas office parties include a “Powynesian wuau”). Finally Scrooge is redeemed from his miserly misery and transformed into as big a jerk as everyone else.

A perfect party show, A Christmas Twist employs more elaborate technical design than the Illegitimates’ earlier outings. Among the unrelenting attacks on overproduced Christmas spectaculars are Cheri Cory’s deliciously overdesigned costumes for the ghosts: Marley’s “chain I forged in life” includes a pair of fuzzy dice, while the Ghost of Christmas Present, a brassy boozer, is dressed in a Christmas-tree hoop skirt. David Whitehouse and Galen G. Ramsey have devised a souped-up sound track whose elements range from “Sleigh Ride” to “Good King Wenceslas” to “Over the Rainbow,” and director Judy O’Malley has elicited a compendium of goofy Victorian caricatures from the ensemble. While everyone’s good, the funniest work comes from Paul Stroili as a comically sullen Tiny Twist, looking like a bleached-out Emo Phillips with his big nose and blond Dutch-boy wig; Tom Willmorth, tricked out in a ridiculous red Captain Hook hairpiece, as a fruitily feral Fagin who not only hoards ill- gotten jewelry but likes to try it on; and Will Clinger as Mr. Bumble, relishing an endless series of absurdly elaborate Dickensian similes: “You’re as harsh as a gruel enema,” he tells Keith Cooper’s stout and stupid Scrooge. All in all, this is a welcome orgy of irreverence for anyone who finds Christmas a grueling experience. Please, sir, can I have some more?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Armstrong.