Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol Credit: Manual Cinema

For a lot of performing arts organizations, the holiday season is when the cash cow gets milked for all it’s worth. Obviously this year it’s different. (If you’ve been in some sort of Rip Van Winkle scenario for the past nine months, congratulations. You might want to see if you can go back there for another six or so.)

But if the Whos down in Whoville can celebrate Christmas without presents and gewgaws, Chicago theater artists can make it work online. Two new productions use screen technology of varying degrees of sophistication to tell two very different stories of a holiday transformation.

Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol

Manual Cinema takes the chestiest of chestnuts and turns it into a story about the need to stay connected—even in a pandemic, and especially when numbed by grief. Which means this always-inventive band of artists, even while stripping the story down to basics, keeps the meat on the bones of A Christmas Carol. And unlike the “undigested bit of beef” that Ebenezer Scrooge blames for Marley’s apparition, it goes down sweet and easy.

The narrator-star of this show is Aunt Trudy (N. LaQuis Harkins), a recently widowed woman with no children of her own. An early shot of the mantelpiece in her house sets the tone: sympathy cards and holiday greetings sit in uneasy juxtaposition. 

Trudy’s late husband, Joe, had a tradition of reenacting the Dickens story every year as a puppet show, which is of course where the Manual Cinema artistry comes in. Using a combination of paper puppets, overhead projectors, and shadow puppetry, Trudy attempts to work the magic that was always Joe’s domain. And, like Scrooge, as she delves deeper into the tale, she realizes how much of her life has been spent in solitary work, rather than convivial communion with others.

Trudy, it must be noted, shows no signs of the toxic parsimony and misanthropy that defines Dickens’s miser. That, to me, is one of the challenges and the strengths of this production. It’s easy for us to look at Scrooge and think “Well, that’s not ME. I’m not kicking people seeking donations out of my office.” (We can just hit the “delete” button on the deluge of Giving Tuesday e-mails.) Trudy isn’t a harsh person. But she is a guarded one, and the loss of Joe, seemingly the one person who truly got her, has sent her into an emotional limbo that would be hard to break through even without social distancing.

It’s a highly relatable twist, and though the character of Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is excised from this adaptation (created by Manual Cinema artistic directors Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter), we the audience are in effect the stand-ins for Fred and for Trudy’s own family, watching the show via Zoom.

The script has been updated with more contemporary vernacular—the Ghost of Christmas Past is a sassy child who tells Scrooge, “OMG we get it! You’re super rich!” The use of a Kodak slide carousel here to evoke nostalgia is every bit as effective as Don Draper’s pitch for the product in Mad Men, who told the clients, “It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again. A place where we know that you’re loved.” A look back at the life Joe and Trudy built together is as tearjerking as the montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage in Up. (The underscoring and sound effects by Kauffman and Vegter also work on the heartstrings.)

The story also contains several not-so-subtle nods to contemporary visions of social justice. Bob Cratchit (spoiler alert!) goes from put-upon office temp to the owner of Scrooge’s establishment by the end of the 60-minute show. (That the Cratchits are a Black family adds to the sense that Scrooge’s redemption arc isn’t just about himself, but about an entire social structure badly in need of addressing long-neglected injustices.)

Visually, the show (which is performed live and streamed via offers a surprising amount of texture and nuance, given that we’re viewing it on a screen and not in the live three-dimensional sphere where Manual Cinema usually operates. (A moment where a single tear appears on the cheek of Mrs. Cratchit in the Christmas Future segment is beautifully rendered.) And as an extra holiday bonus, the creators stick around for 15 minutes or so after each performance, answering questions about how they made it work. This year more than ever, curiosity and empathy about the way we’re all trying to hold it together even as we’re kept apart matters.

<i>The Rip Nelson Holiday Quarantine Special</i>
The Rip Nelson Holiday Quarantine SpecialCredit: Rick Aguilar Studios

The Rip Nelson Holiday Quarantine Special

Don’t expect Hell in a Handbag to get all gloppy and sentimental on us. This year’s virtual holiday show conjures a different set of spirits than either Dickens or Manual Cinema imagined in the form of an affectionate spoof of 1970s holiday specials, where people you’d never imagine occupying the same universe somehow came together. (Hi, Bing Crosby and David Bowie!)

The title host is a histrionic comedian, seemingly created out of spare parts of confetti-strewing Rip Taylor, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Paul Lynde (reliable providers of queer entendres that went right over my head when I saw them on game shows as a kid). As played by Ed Jones, he’s also an unrepentant party animal with “a higher tolerance for drugs and alcohol than Mötley Crüe.”

Handbag has staged live shows with Jones’s Rip in the past, including 2010’s Halloween-themed The Rip Nelson Holiday Spooktacular and 2016’s Christmas incarnation. For this hell-in-a-handcart year, they’ve set the action in Rip’s ICU ward, where he’s recovering from COVID-19 and haunted by the notion that Ryan Seacrest will beat him to the seasonal celebrity buffet.

Written by Hell in a Handbag artistic director David Cerda with songs by Scott Lamberty, Rip Nelson relies upon a certain generational knowledge of, and affection for, late Boomer and early Gen X childhood markers, like Lucille Ball (Cerda), her daughter Lucie Arnaz (Alexa Castelvecchi), and Lucie’s beau, David Cassidy of The Partridge Family (played with an air of vacuous self-contentment by Nicky Mendelsohn). There’s also Charlton Heston (Michael Rashid) and even Der Bingle himself (Grant Drager in an outsize pair of prosthetic ears).

For a touch of old-school high-brow camp, we’ve got Danne W. Taylor‘s lavender-haired raconteur-actor Quentin Crisp (though he’s come down in the world sufficiently to be flogging his new eponymous line of cereal). Doug Henning (David Lipschutz) is, fittingly enough, a sort of magical spirit guide through what could be Rip’s deathbed visions, or maybe just a bad trip from too many self-prescribed meds.

Directed and choreographed by Stevie Love and filmed in front of a green screen for deliberately cheesy stylistic flourishes, the show generally works better in pieces than as a whole. Unlike last summer’s The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 4—LOCKDOWN!, which took the company’s long-running spoof of The Golden Girls and leaned heavily into the tropes of socially distanced dialogue, not having a live audience to share the “I got that reference!” moments, along with a little bit of dead air between gags, slows down the comic energy from time to time.

But fans of Jones (and if you’re not one, you should be) won’t be disappointed to see his otherworldly manchild of a washed-up showman. He’s the kind of guy who reminisces about freebasing with Doris Day, fer crissakes. The rest of the cast provides plenty of delightfully risque or just plain WTF moments. The mish-mash of old and new (Robert Williams‘s Ella Fitzgerald crooning Guns N’ Roses’s “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is a particular musical stand-out) in its own way fits with a year in which nothing is the same, and yet every day feels depressingly familiar. We’ve all been on a bad trip. Hell in a Handbag is here to help you laugh about it.  v