Photo by Casey Campbell
Call me Scrooge, but the last time I remember enjoying a performance of A Christmas Carol was the one done by the Muppets in 1992 (in all fairness, I haven’t seen ART’s Sherlockian version). That is, until the ladies from the Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society rolled into the wee burg of Hillsboro to put on their production at Bag&Baggage Theatre as part of the British Embassy American Cultural Re-education Program. Or something like that, but with a British accent.

“WTF?!” you justly ask—and no doubt will continue asking all through the production with mounting glee. It’s quite simple, really: four small town British hens and their doddering stage manager are touring a production of A Christmas Carol—only thing is they’re actually men in drag, and they’re acting according to Ye Ol’ Refined School of British Theatre that holds that really really bad theatre is in fact really really great theatre. And this is bad theatre at its hilarious best.

Drawing on the long tradition of small town British Pantomime (“Panto”) style holiday shows that star “local celebrities” (i.e. the mayor and the local ladies) in ridiculous theatrics, the ladies of Farndale are absurdly over the top in everything they do—and they do practically everything in their blundered retelling of Scrooge’s three fateful visits. A Riverdance homage? Danced with gusto. A Who’s on First routine? Struck out of the theater. Tiny Tim as a puppet shirt worn by the biggest actor? Not too offensive for these girls. A visit from Barack and Michelle from down at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave? Wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without it.

While the show, directed by B&B's Scott Palmer, is slow to start (the joke about waiting for three of the ladies to arrive from the traffic jam in Aloha goes on way too long), the momentum builds through the first act, and the second is a flat out zany physical romp through the tired old Christmas tale. Some jokes stray into the predictable drag realm (this is Hillsboro, after all, where the threshold for transgression is a little lower), but many more strike you in the belly, and there’s no shortage of intoxicating hits of comic creativity, including mannequins clumsily thrown over the audience’s heads on a rope that function as Scrooge and the traveling spirits, and Tylor Neist as Felicity Boleyn Stafford doing an even-funnier-than-Mike Myers riff on the Austin Powers’ imaginary staircase routine.

Ian Armstrong stands out as Thelma Greenwood, the vainglorious ‘star’ of the show, who plays Scrooge with an outrageously stylized earnestness and high English pronunciation that recalls the British child star Freddie Bartholomew (if you look closely, her face has been lifted the DIY style: with tape). But the standout for sheer physical comedy is Sean Powell, who plays Mercedes Bower (who plays Bob Cratchit) as a pill-addled British Valley Girl–equivalent with a neck brace and an on-demand, dental-bleaching-commercial smile who totters around in impossibly tall heels like the Energizer Bunny in drag on Ritalin.

This is the kind of show that yearns for a musty, claustrophobic church basement, but the small cast does an admirable job of filling the vaulted Venetian Theatre, in part by interacting with the audience, and in part by having so many things going on at once that its impossible to catch every evil glance and gag as they bicker among themselves while barely managing to pull off even a horrible production. And that’s horrible in the sense of break out your gaudiest chiffon, make sure you don’t look in the mirror when you apply your lipstick, and come celebrate Christmas right: with drunken laughter. (Drinks optional, but we recommend arriving at the theater’s bar early for a couple of stiff ones. Mercedes and the girls would approve).

[Ed. Note: Did I mention Ab Fab? I totally should've mentioned Ab Fab.]

Performances continue at the Venetian Theatre through December 23. For more information, click here.

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