‘Twist Your Dickens’
Through Dec. 31
The Kennedy Center
As Ford’s Theatre marks the 500th performance of its current production of “A Christmas Carol,” nearer to the river, the Kennedy Center is presenting “Twist Your Dickens,” a less reverential take on Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas ghost story about the miser who finds redemption.
Produced by the Second City (the legendary comedy enterprise that originated in Chicago) and penned by former “The Colbert Report” writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, this yuletide satire is rife with outrageous gags, sketch comedy and improvisation.
Directed by Frank Caeti, it’s frantically fast paced and the five-person cast (who with the exception of local actor John Lescault as Scrooge play multiple roles) possess comedic talent and energy to spare. Still, like any sketch/improv show, some of the skits fall flat, but since it’s moving so quickly from one joke to the next, you’re soon laughing again.
“Twist” loosely follows the Dickens’ narrative but it’s in no way moored to the 1843 work’s Victorian setting. It veers toward more contemporary times and riffs on other Christmas classics. The Peanuts kids make an appearance. They’re chiding Linus (Eric M. Messner nailing Linus’ lisp as heard on the beloved TV specials) about whether it’s OK to include Christ in Christmastime.
And a harried George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life” (again Messner — he’s a talented mimic) makes a cameo. He’s having an existential moment. Scrooge isn’t helpful. Next, it’s some familiar faces from the island of misfit toys possibly finding homes with a pair of blasé D.C. hipsters.
The anachronisms don’t go unnoticed. Shouting from the audience, a loudmouth Dickens purist (Paul Jurewicz) points out a Starbucks cup onstage along with myriad other inaccuracies. Unfazed by the mistakes, he climbs on stage, sheds his hoodie to reveal a Victorian vest and coat and joins the fun.
As Scrooge, Lescault is at turns apoplectically incensed, crotchety and slyly devilish. He hates the poor and goes so far as stealing the money kettle from a Salvation Army bell ringer. But he’s not entirely wicked. When the Ghost of Christmas Past, (a hilarious spiky-haired Jurewicz as an ‘80s hair/metal rocker) guides Scrooge back in time to a Christmas party thrown by his first employer, kindly Mr. Fezziwig, Scrooge says, “The happiness he gave us was as great as a fortune.” He’s thawing.
The show’s best parts are drawn from Dickens’ book. But of course, all is upside down. Scrooge’s goodhearted nephew Fred is manically mad. His put-upon clerk Bob Cratchit (Aaron Bliden), Mrs. Cratchit (Anne Bowles) and their preternaturally perky dying son Tiny Tim (Tia Shearer) plot doing away with the boss. They think staging a suicide would work best.
Scrooge’s late business partner, Morley (again Messner), appears in chains. His red and green paper chains is made up of confessions from audience members (written in the lobby before the show). Sins include outing a teenage girl at a slumber party and extracting a wrong tooth (presumably a dentist’s misdeed). Always fast on their feet, the actors make quick and funny references to the confessions (different for every performance) throughout the show.
Tom Buderwitz’s set (an imposing portrait of Dickens’ hanging over a façade of old rowhouses and storefronts in gray and mossy green) fits nicely in the cozy Theatre Lab, the Kennedy Center’s top floor space. And certainly this 19th century London isn’t romanticized. A syrupy Tiny Tim close to death but wide-eyed smiley celebrates Christmas with a slumber party. Guests include boys with Ricketts, dropsy, and a pal who’s so malnourished he can’t stand, but rather wriggles across the floor.
Carisa Barreca is a hoot as the Ghost of Christmas Present, a dim blonde obsessed with social media. She also plays cheery Aunt Jeanie who shows up Christmas mornings after her husband throws her out for having yet another affair with another woman. Barreca also plays boozy lounge singer Ruby Santini. She improvises “Jingle Bells” (at the audience’s suggestion). Lyrics include lots of “boobs” and “balls.”
Yes, there’s some language and bawdy humor (recommended for ages 16 and over), but it’s also often clever and a lot of fun, even ending with a singalong.