Reno Little Theater’s holiday offering is decidedly un-holidayish. Its actors are relative unknowns, and a few have almost no previous experience. In fact, the show’s very premise relies upon them performing the most overly performed holiday chestnuts badly. The Spartan set looks as if it was thrown together in a matter of hours, and their costumes with even less time.
And I absolutely loved it.
Inspecting Carol is the brainchild of Daniel Sullivan, an American Theatre Hall-of-Famer who, in 1991, collaborated with the Seattle Repertory Company to write a mash-up of A Christmas Carol and the Russian comedy of errors The Inspector General, a story about mistaken identity that leads to the government getting screwed. Fresh-faced, starry-eyed Wayne (Chris Blanford) arrives at The Soapbox Theater for an audition to become a Soapbox Player. It’s his last stop on a theater bus tour, so this one needs to count. Grumpy stage manager M.J. (Rachel Sliker) greets Wayne, immediately recognizes his lack of talent, and sends him packing.
She’s busy trying to get the lazy, unprofessional Soapbox Players off their asses to rehearse. They have only four days before they open. But no one feels any urgency—they’ve done A Christmas Carol every year since artistic director Zorah (Annikki Larsson) opened The Soapbox a decade ago, and they can’t rustle up enough energy to care. Playing Scrooge is Larry (Brian Shiedel), who keeps trying to re-imagine the show by injecting “creative” interpretations of the script—last year’s Scrooge spoke Spanish, and this year he’d like to add a commentary about abortion and reconsider Tiny Tim’s sexuality. Luther (Logan Thomason) reprises his beloved Tiny Tim, despite being far too old for it. Phil is a smart-ass Cratchit who’s been bitter ever since Zorah slept with him and then gave him the brush-off. Then there’s Sidney (Fred Garcia) and Dorothy (Marti Creveling), an overly optimistic pair of veteran actors. There’s Bart (Brandon Keil), a Brooklyn transplant prone to profanity; Kevin (Dave Martens), the high-strung, worrisome business manager; and Walter (Abel Echeverria), a Hispanic man who recently joined the company as part of Zorah’s “multicultural initiative.”
Meanwhile, the Soapbox Theater is broke. Its only remaining source of predictable funding, the $13,000 normally provided annually by the National Endowment for the Arts, is also on the rocks. An inspector’s coming to evaluate the theater and determine how much, if any, money it should get this year. Zorah needs to pull out all the stops for the inspector when he arrives. But the guy she’s pegged as the inspector is Wayne, who’s so determined to get his audition that he returns with a take-charge attitude and some wild ideas for the show, which the company, unfortunately, decides to use. The result is that no one has any idea what’s going on. Without revealing how this one turns out, I’ll tell you that the last 30 minutes of the show are enormously funny.
The show intelligently plays on theater stereotypes—the incestuous nature of a local theater community, the actor who’s over concerned with “process,” the hand-to-mouth life of actors, the embarrassing vocal exercises, the head-in-the-clouds newbie who dreams of landing a real job. And it jabs at the ironies of too-ambitious multiculturalism and of arts organizations pandering to the government.
Accolades go to Doug Mishler’s sound design, which is brilliantly executed and contributes to the show’s laughs. What a pleasure it was for me to see a local performance in which I didn’t recognize a single actor—a rarity in itself—and yet enjoyed them all (especially Abel Echeverria, a sort of hapless comedic genius, and the rosy-cheeked Chris Blanford, a pitch-perfect Wayne).
If you’re looking for a little anti-holiday cheer, this one’s a real dickens.