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Chicago Spotlight: December 2005

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William Brown and Bradley Mott in the Goodman's
A Christmas Carol
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
The time of treacle and sugarplums is upon us, with no fewer than six versions of A Christmas Carol -- including the annual production at the Goodman -- and at least five variations on The Nutcracker (not all of them dance) occupying center stage. There's even a Nutcracker on Horseback offered by the Noble Horse Theatre, through Jan. 8, which incorporates show riding and equestrian tricks into the familiar tale, and lets kids pet the horses at the curtain call. Those seeking serious theatrical fare this month will be hard-pressed to find it, unless they consider Marley's Ghost to be the height of drama and the redemption of Scrooge to be deep philosophy.

The sociopath's redemption may, in fact, be deep philosophy, but it's also trite, familiar, tried-and-true, sentimental, and usually adapted down to be suitable for all ages. Hardly any version of A Christmas Carol will put a good scare into you, which is what it should do. I might say that Dickens wanted to put the fear of God into his readers, save for the fact that A Christmas Carol is strikingly unreligious and only generically Christian. Indeed, if it were not for Tiny Tim's famous toast, God wouldn't be mentioned in the tale at all, which also happens to be full of pagan rituals and various ghosts and spirits that most Christian denominations would eschew as superstitions. I've always felt the most significant moment in the Dickens classic is when the Ghost of Xmas Present reveals two emaciated waifs under his robe, and says to Scrooge, "This boy is Want and this girl is Ignorance. Fear them both, but above all fear the girl." Unfortunately, this little gem of socio-political truth--even more potent today than when it was written 160 years ago--is expurgated from the vast majority of stage adaptations.

The mid and late autumn have had their share of wide-ranging and substantive drama; but 23 -- that's 23 -- shows will close the weekend of Dec. 17-18 to clear the stages of almost everything but holiday fare. Among the significant attractions is the Dec. 3-18 visit of Mabou Mines with their adaptation of Ibsen, Dollhouse, presented by Court Theatre at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Also, the regional premiere of the musical Dessa Rose, about an inter-racial friendship during the Civil War, is at Apple Tree Theatre, Dec. 10-31. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre squeezes in a rare mid-December opening but it's Shakespeare-Lite with Much Ado About Nothing, opening Dec. 19 for a run through Feb. 26. And significant or not, a milestone of sorts will occur on New Year's Eve when Bailiwick Repertory gives a final performance of Naked Boys Singing after a run of four years and four months.

For the most part, though, even shows that aren't specifically holiday-themed have been selected with festivities and/or families in mind, such as Oliver! at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Dec. 7-Feb. 12, with multiple Jefferson Award winner Greg Vinkler as Fagin; or The Sound of Music at Light Opera Works, Dec. 26-Jan. 1. Northlight Theatre (at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie) goes festive (if not quite family), too, with a world premiere compilation of Noel Coward songs, A Marvelous Party, Dec. 10-Jan. 8.

Downtown, Broadway in Chicago offers a return visit of the Hairspray national tour, Dec. 6-18 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, brightened by the presence of veteran Chicago actor and director Dale Calandra, who has been understudy for Edna Turnblad for a year. It will go on for three performances in Chicago, Tuesday night Dec. 13 and matinee and evening shows on Dec. 14. Also downtown, the less-than-one-year-old Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place has brought in Stuart Ross to stage his seasonal sequel to his hit-everywhere Forever Plaid. Ross' Plaid Tidings, in which the 1950's boy quartet takes on holiday songs, runs through Dec. 31.

The rest of the December schedule is given over to the holidays, among which are at least several brand-new instant holiday traditions. Incurable Theatre offers a non-dance, puppet interpretation of The Nutcracker and the King of Mice, hewing closer to the E. T. A. Hoffmann original fantasy, Dec. 2-Jan. 8 at the Cultural Center Studio Theatre. Emerald City Theatre Company's update, A Nutcracker Christmas, is an original musical version for families in which the hero is a modern video game boy who outwits the mice through his level-22 mastery of Mouse Hunter 5000, at the Apollo Theater through Dec. 31.

In Evanston, Piccolo Theatre presents an original holiday panto in the British tradition, Jack and the Wild Goose Chase, through Dec. 17. Most of the holiday shows are suitable for families with children as young as four or five. There are, however, a few exceptions. You might not care to take the young ones to such jaundiced holiday material as Screw Xmas, by Sweetback Productions through Dec. 23 at the Royal George Theatre, or the world premiere of The Santa Abductions, through Dec. 23 at the Neo-Futurarium, or The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, which recount Santa's drinking problems and abuse of Vixen, by The Journeymen, through Dec. 23 at Theatre Building Chicago. Even the wonderful physical comedy troupe, 500 Clown, can go a bit on the dark side, although most kids will love 500 Clown (sings) Christmas Carol(s), a pop-rock clown show at the Storefront Theater through Jan. 7.

Chicago's gay theater contingent couldn't possibly ignore the holidays. GayCo Productions, a sketch comedy troupe that copped a prize last summer at the Fringe Festival in New York, offers a new show, Do You Fear What I Fear? combining religion, lesbians, carols, and circuit boys, through Dec. 18 at Bailiwick Arts Center. The same venue hosts It's a FABULOUS Life, in which a gay George Bailey is saved by an angel in a madcap musical, through Dec. 31. Strawdog Theatre is the venue, through Jan. 7, for Judy's Scary Little Christmas, a Hell in a Handbag production that offers a Judy Garland TV special in which she disintegrates in high camp fashion before such guest stars as Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman.

So be sure to ask, "Is this show suitable for children? Or is it just for childish adults?" And remember, please, that Christmas follows fast on Thanksgiving's leftovers.

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