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Every Christmas Every Told (And Then Some!): This Christmas turkey should be stuffed

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Amid their guerilla assaults on Shakespeare, the Bible, American history and sports, the Reduced Shakespeare Company somehow hasn't gotten around to targeting Christmas. Well, nature and merchandising abhor a vacuum, so the comedy team of Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald and John K. Alvarez have jumped into the breach with Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!), and Actor's Theatre of Charlotte is presenting the abhorrent regional premiere through Dec. 18.

While the comedy trio was able to pilfer the flavor of the Reduced concept easily enough — including the trademark parentheses that mark the titles of the Complete catalog — they seem to have run into a roadblock when they tried to collect their Christmas canon. Copyright law seems to protect A Charlie Brown Christmas, "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," and the Christmas stories of Truman Capote, Jean Sheperd and Dylan Thomas much better than it protects Shakespeare and parentheses.

Thus we get a godawful "Gustave, the Green-nosed Rain-goat." While the skit successfully vents the frustration of Carleton, FitzGerald and Alvarez, you really can't say it glows. To their credit, once you get past Actor's Theatre's mistake of buying into this trussed turkey, director Craig Spradley and his excellent cast occasionally create the illusion that it can fly, particularly in the deadly Act 1.

Joe Klosek and Maret Decker Seitz, who were so brilliant in The 39 Steps back in September, are the most desperately energetic here. They draw the task of convincing Chip Bradley that his intention of performing Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a truly bad idea. What their good idea is remains a mystery, for as we careen through the stories of the Grinch, Frosty the Snowman, and Gustave the mutant, it becomes obvious that sending these actors scurrying around the stage and into the audience are the only tricks up the writers' sleeves. Repeated visits from the Noëlco Santa and a fruitcake TV quiz show, intended to puff up the show's every-ness, merely enhance the aroma of desperation.

The proportioning of the show is as ungainly as the comedy. After a longish 74-minute opening act, there was a standard-sized 18-minute intermission. But with a clocking of less than 22 minutes, Act 2 was barely longer than the break!

Improbably, Act 2 far outshines the silliness that precedes it, as Bradley finally gets his chance to portray Scrooge — with one zany catch: He must also be redeemed as the iconic George Bailey. So nearly all of Act 2 becomes a frenetic mashup of A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life. The more swiftly Bradley switches from Scrooge to George (with an imitation of James Stewart that steadily improved on opening night), the funnier he gets.

But while the Dickens and its three spirits lend themselves easily to ruthless abridgement, the Capra classic is instantly pulverized without any sense of continuity. Aside from his brief stint as Lionel Barrymore — worth all of his tedious Frosty put together — Klosek has very little to work with while Seitz is feasting on the far more fertile pantheon of Scrooge mentors and acquaintances.

So yes, there are fitful moments of laughter here in Act 1 that reward your fortitude in tolerating the rest, and the mind-bogglingly brief Act 2 faintly echoes the inspired zaniness we're used to on Stonewall Street. But there's little here that will appeal to Christmas cognoscenti, unless they covet the privilege of claiming they've seen the very worst Actor's Theatre production of the new millennium. When the company returns to the safe haven of The Santaland Diaries in future years, Every Christmas Story will no doubt be recalled as a wrong-headed palate cleanser.

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