‘A Christmas Carol’ becomes wacky gender-bender at Actors’ Summit

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Zach Griffin, (top row left to right) Neil Thackaberry, Gabriel Riazi, Frank Jackman, (middle) and Laura Valdenza star in The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Presents ... A Christmas Carol, playing at Actors' Summit in downtown Akron. (Bruce Ford Photo)

A Dickens classic becomes quite the giggly affair in the hands of some earnest yet inept British ladies in The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Presents … “A Christmas Carol.”

The verbose title, playing for the holidays at Actors’ Summit, is both a spoof of the Dickens classic and a nod to the British holiday “panto” tradition, which includes songs, slapstick comedy and dancing, jokes, exaggerated characters, audience participation and cross-dressing actors. The tradition, popular with amateur dramatic societies in the U.K., normally runs during Christmas and New Year’s.

You don’t have to know the British tradition to enjoy the humor in this Actors’ Summit production, directed by Paula Kline Messner. But the Farndale women’s antics have been compared to Monty Python’s actors dressed as the Batley Townswomen’s Guild, re-enacting the battle of Pearl Harbor with their handbags.

Lone woman plays stagehand

Just to mix things up in Akron, Messner has created a complete gender-bender, with four men playing the Farndale ladies and lone actress Laura Stitt — who looks remarkably believable in her short, boyish wig — playing stagehand Gordon.

These ninnies break all the theatrical rules as they massacre Dickens’ work, taking tea breaks, accepting phone calls and bickering openly with each other in the middle of the play’s action. The ladies play such an array of Dickensian characters, sometimes they show up onstage in the wrong costumes and spouting the wrong lines.

The show gets off to a bit of a slow start as Neil Thackaberry, playing the technically befuddled Mrs. Reece, works to get the ball rolling by introducing the idea of an amateur theater production and the need for audience participation. The grandmotherly character — dressed in a tacky Santa sweater with an even tackier Santa quilted skirt, carrying a Christmas tree appliqué bag — announces the other actresses are late so they’re going to have to draft someone from the audience to play Scrooge.

Cast fetching in Christmas sweaters

The other ladies show up in the nick of time, wearing velvety long skirts and Christmas sweaters. They’re led by the rotund Frank Jackman as diva Thelma, wearing a curly long blond wig and copious amounts of blue eye shadow.

They also include Gabriel Riazi as the theatrically zealous Felicity, and Zach Griffin as the neck brace-wearing Mercedes, victim of a grocery store cart pileup, who shuffles around ever-so-slowly.

All five actors are having a wildly good time but they’re not playing for laughs. The fact that they’re all playing their characters completely straight is what makes the comedy.

This 1987 comedy by British playwrights David McGillivray and the late Walter Zerlin Jr., which includes two original songs, is one of 10 spoofs the pair created for the fictional Farndale ladies, butchering everything from Macbeth to The Mikado.

In Akron, Stitt is hilarious as the sour-faced Gordon, who doesn’t react to being hit by snowballs and is generally intransigent about going along with all the ladies’ desperate improvisations in their various Dickensian roles.

She creates an unforgettable sight gag when, playing Marley’s Ghost, her face becomes stuck in a door, which naturally messes up the scary scene with Scrooge. When she’s finally free, Stitt’s Marley whales on Jackman’s Scrooge with her chains. This requires intervention by the plummy-voiced Mrs. Reece, who drops her narrator character to complain about Thelma’s bruises.

Snowman scene erupts in song

The women’s production begins with a wacky little winter scene with a snowman (Felicity) and Santa (Mercedes) that has nothing whatsoever to do with A Christmas Carol. But it does give the ladies a chance to break out into a ridiculous song, It’s Because It’s Christmas, which features Riazi singing in crazy falsetto. This willowy actor, who makes an elegant-looking Felicity, is a strong singer and dancer who has the right level of control to make both — including executing pirouettes — wonderfully daffy.

Jackman also gets laughs with Thelma’s overacting, including her grand arm gestures and her hitching of her bosom each time a clock chimes.

You’ll have to see the show to discover how a grown man portrays Tiny Tim, or how the actors team up to create a towering yet still silly Ghost of Christmas Present. The whole package is a welcome spin on the usual holiday theatrical fare.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.


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