Theater News

Here’s to the Ladies Who Carol

Laughing along with a brilliantly professional "amateur" production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The Farndale womenand their stage manager
The Farndale women
and their stage manager

“What a relief! I’m going to like it.” These were my thoughts as I recently watched the classic story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim unfold, with a welcome twist. Confirmation of my feelings came as bursts of laughter issued from my son’s belly throughout the performance.

We were enjoying The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of A Christmas Carol, presented by CATCO at the Verne Riffe Center’s Studio One. Before being seated by the usher, we were greeted at the studio door by “Mrs. Reece,” a proper old bird clad in a festive, green holiday dress. She welcomed us and told me she was glad to see my “young one.” (“This show is especially fun for the kids, you know,” she said.) Now, I knew that any Farndale production would have a special twist; but unfamiliarity with the Farndale Christmas Carol made for a special surprise when Mrs. Reece proceeded to the stage, announced that the actresses in the play had all been held up in traffic, and then asked for volunteers from the audience to fill their spots. That marked the beginning of a wonderfully amusing evening. If you and your family need a cure for the It’s a Wonderful Life/Miracle on 34th Street rerun blues, this Christmas Carol should do the trick. (Parental advisory: there is one sexual reference that recurs throughout the play.)

Five people — four women from the “society” and one tired stage manager — fill all the roles in the production. Mrs. Reece (Linda Dorff), the chair of the society, is the first person we meet, and then the cast gets even more colorful. There’s Thelma (Lori Cannon), the prima donna; Felicity (Marianne Timmons), a mostly incompetent but well-meaning newcomer to the group; and Mercedes (Robin Amy Gordon), who perseveres despite the injuries she sustained in a recent shopping cart accident. (The society’s newsletter informs us that “Mercedes is a novice actress and is making her debut on the FAHETGDS stage. In rehearsals, more than one lady has told her that she should be in the audience…to see her own performance.”) These chatty women, with the help of stage manager Gordon (Geoffrey Martin), prepare for the show after rushing in from traffic

As the play gets underway, the audience becomes aware of the side-splitting, Farndale way of doing things. Allowing for a wide margin of artistic freedom, these ladies add original songs to A Christmas Carol and “improve” the dialogue of the Dickens classic. Doubling as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Gordon not only rattles his chains but also manages to hit Thelma (who doubles as Scrooge) in the head with them several times. Missed entrances, misprinted scripts, toppling scenery, misplaced props,
and costume problems continue to amuse us throughout the night. (Actors breaking character have never been so appealing.) There’s even a full, Broadway-style dance solo performed by Felicity (Marianne Timmons). And the audience winner of a game of charades that’s inserted into the action of the play gets a special prize: He or she becomes part of the cast, performing the last scene with the Farndale ladies.

David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin, Jr. are responsible for this dose of Christmas cheer. Apparently, Zerlin’s mom was the inspiration for the Farndale concept: “My mother had been in her drama group for years,” he has said. “I always remember seeing her in shows with women playing men’s parts, and doing it dreadfully. But throughout it all was the fun and drive they had, no matter what problem beset them.” After seeing one of his mother’s performances, Zerlin and McGillivray concocted The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Macbeth. That show premiered in the Edinburgh Festival in 1976 and launched the pair on a long relationship with the Farndale ladies which has since included The Farndale Follies (1978); The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery (1980, revised in 1988); Chase Me Up Farndale Avenue, S’il Vous Plait (1982); and We Found Love and an Exquisite Set of Porcelain Figurines Aboard the S.S. Farndale Avenue (1990). To fuel their vision, McGillivray and Zerlin attended performances by all sorts of amateur theater companies, taking note of the mistakes that were made.

Their field research pays off big-time in the hilarious snafus of the Farndale Christmas Carol. At one point, cast members walk across the stage without realizing that the backdrop that should be concealing them from the audience has been raised. From ghosts that carry handbags to botched audio cues to words of mourning over the wrong grave site, The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of A Christmas Carol is a wonderful way to break the holiday monotony.