Craig Cackowski as Scrooge and Nicholas Kessler as Bob Cratchit in PCS's Twist Your Dickens
Craig Cackowski as Scrooge and Nicholas Kessler as Bob Cratchit

 Fun for the Whole Family
By Tiny Tim
(Haley Martin) 
A Holiday Mess
By Ebenezer Scrooge
(Cari Johnson) 

Guided by Chicago’s famed improv troupe, Second City, and director Matt Hovde, Portland Center Stage frolics for the first time into sketch comedy and improv with Twist Your Dickens. The satire doesn’t just spin a twist on A Christmas Carol, but skewers a buffet of Christmas classics, from George Bailey covered in snow to the Peanuts crew questioning God and the Island of Misfit Toys being adopted by Portland hipsters. All the while, a planted audience member heckles the cast for their grossly erroneous Dickens rendition, as miserly Scrooge, played by Second City vet Craig Cackowki, is transported through time via Christmas spirits—past is played by an 80s rocker, present is hungover, and future is, well, a misplaced death.

Over the course of the show, seven nimble comic actors, several locals and two Second City members, play 25-plus characters. One particularly humorous segment features the “original” ending to The Charlie Brown Christmas Special, which was supposedly cut by TV execs. With actor’s faces peeking through holes in life-size cartoon cutouts, Linus preaches that the Lord is the reason for the season while Charlie Brown groans that he always “makes everything about Jesus” and Peppermint Patty has the revelation that, if God is real, then why can’t Linus stop carrying around that stupid blanket.

Decorating the script like Christmas lights are occasional openings for audience participation, including multiple points where the actors read naughty misdeeds submitted by audience members—our show included lovemaking under the Christmas tree and an unfortunate Nair incident—and are set free to riff off them, resulting in some of the edgiest humor.

Second City brings something fresh to the tired holiday fare in Portland. With pop culture humor aimed at a younger audience, the show is amusing for the whole family (excluding your snarky older sibling who’s used to edgier sketch comedy), no matter the tangential structure. Come with an open mind, and don’t take yourself too seriously. After all, look where that gets Scrooge.

When I heard about Second City’s rendition of A Christmas Carol, I could not have been more skeptical. Do we need another mediocre stab at the classic story, when Portland purses are already being bled dry by annual runs of the cynical Santaland Diaries and the original, overdone Christmas Carol. So I headed to the holiday-decked Gerding Theater and prepared myself for a cheap chuckle. Sure enough, my cynicism got the best of me.

Some of the sketches and script hit the funny bone, but others, particularly a washed up, drunken starlet butchering Christmas songs, fall flat. The cast is most dynamic during the moments of improv, even though the two biggest openings for audience participation feel suspiciously more like “choose your own (scripted) adventure” than actually risky, open improv. Maybe I just like people’s dark sides more, but the naughty “misdeeds” of audience members were my favorite moments in the show.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m entertained by a storyline. Twist Your Dickens, while delightfully snarky, ultimately lost my interest with its loose, scattered scenes glued together by occasional Christmas Carol references. Running for an exhausting 1.75 hours, the play sprang through decades and pop culture references faster than I can say bah, humbug.

Without a tight storyline and a wittier script, the cant wise cracks fell short of creating a hearty, Christmas chuckle. Not that I want one anyway. Bah!

Twist Your Dickens plays Portland Center Stage Gerding Theater thru Dec 22.

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