Review: Second City’s ‘Twist Your Dickens’ at The Kennedy Center

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If you’re looking for something to laugh at in this wintry political season, then you’d better move fast. That’s because tickets for Twist Your Dickens, Second City’s parody of A Christmas Carol—now having its DC debut at The Kennedy Center—are nearly sold out for the entire run.

Jaime Moyer, from left, John Lescault, Aaron Bliden, and Tina Shearer in the Second City’s “Twist Your Dickens.” Photo by Teresa Castracane

That’s not surprising, since this farcical romp through the bleakest of Victorian times—an era when corporate greed ruled the land and the underprivileged were ignored (sound familiar?)—is blessed with a team of writers, designers and performers who know how to keep the audience laughing and in a state of surprise. That’s no mean trick.

Like the Victorian plays it parodies, this spoof begins with an introduction in rhyme, delivered by a quartet of zombies (Marley and the three ghosts, in motley attire). Here is one verse:

OH WELCOME TO A CHRISTMAS CAROL
A STORY BY CHARLES DICKENS
IT’S FULL OF GHOSTS AND HORRORS SO –
WE HOPE THAT YOU’RE NOT CHICKENS!

Like the original, this production opens with Ebenezer Scrooge standing at his desk. The year is 1843, and Scrooge (being Scrooge-like) is counting his profits—extracted from the poor—and rejecting all requests to honor Christmas.

Cratchit, his browbeaten assistant, has just been denied the day off. He goes home to his humble abode—no Ikea furniture there—to commiserate with his wife and the endlessly cheerful (though crippled) Tiny Tim. Scrooge, meanwhile, crawls into his bed and soon is visited by a series of ghosts, who—introduced by Marlowe, his late dead partner—warn him of what’s in store if he does not change.

That’s the gist of the original plot, though Twist Your Dickens—like all Second City productions—is a far cry from the original. There are dozens of skits, some carefully scripted and rehearsed, and some improvised (though also, truth to tell, rehearsed.)

Some of the characters in the scripted scenes seem to drop onto the stage like a series of demented deus ex machinas. In fact, some are so preposterous that the mere idea of the skit, apart from the execution, is hilarious.

And the execution is superb. All the roles are played by just seven actors, two of whom are Second City regulars—imported for the occasion—while five are familiar faces on the DC stage.

Frank Caeti and Jamie Moyer are the two imports. Both are old hands at Twist Your Dickens as well as regulars on Modern Family on TV. Quintessential clowns, they are both so funny that their mere appearance—on stage or in the aisles—evokes howls of laughter.

On the DC side, John Lescault—known to audiences here as a fine Shakespearean actor and a frequent narrator at NSO concerts – is a splendid Scrooge, while Aaron Bliden, an actor and writer known for his work at Mosaic and Theater J, is a perfectly cringing Cratchit.

Anne Bowles, who comes to Second City from Broadway and Theater J, is wonderful as both Mrs. Cratchit and as Scrooge’s long-lost fiancee. Tia Shearer is Tiny Tim, bouncing with optimism as she hobbles around in a suit of many plaids. And Jamie Smithson is manically wild as the Scrooge nephew who can’t stop chortling (or gagging at his uncle’s mean behavior).

Written by Second City alums Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort—the writers behind Stephen Colbert’s long-running gig on Comedy Central—and directed by Second City pro Marc Warzecha, this production benefits from split-second timing and a sense of joy that’s infectious.

Much of that joy comes from the loopy comings and goings of the actors.

Phantoms. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Hope Villaneuva is the stage manager whose work, here in DC, has brought magic to many stages—ranging from Arena Stage to The Studio Theatre— often transforming tiny spaces into multiple worlds.

Working with Bekah Wachenfeld, the production manager, Villaneuva creates the equivalent of French bedroom farce by having characters pop in and out of the windows and doors that help define this corner of the Victorian world.

The set, designed by Tom Buderwitz, is a cleverly constructed façade of modest row houses, typical of 19th century London, and dominated by a giant portrait of Dickens himself. In front of the façade there is a standing desk that rotates with a bed and and a kitchen table, shifting the scene from the office of a miserly Scrooge, counting his money, to the setting for his ghostly nighttime visitors, and the impoverished dwelling of an angelic Tiny Tim.

Visual jokes abound in this production, and much credit must go to the unpredictable costumes—brilliantly designed by Ivania Stack, whose clothing assemblages can be seen on virtually every stage in DC—and the strobe lights, designed by Alberto Segara, which hint at thunder and lightning and possibly even divine intervention.

Whether decked out in classic Victorian garb, or—as in one case—sporting angel’s wings as he skateboards around the set, the characters in this show are always dressed in the most outlandish attire.

Although Second City has grown—from a single cabaret in Chicago in 1959 into an empire of comedic enterprises—it has not lost its ability to poke fun at the most sanctimonious beliefs, nor to question the most politically correct shibboleths.

The choice of the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab—an exquisite theatre-in-the-round that holds about 400 seats—helps restore the intimacy that I think a show like this needs.

Second City’s Twist Your Dickens is a delicious funny show for the season, so scroll down and—if you’re lucky—buy the last few tickets available.

And, as Scrooge says, a ‘fracking New Year’ to you too!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.

Twist Your Dickens plays through December 31, 2016, at The Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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