A Christmas Commedia

Call me easy, but any play in which a buxom young actress pulls a candy cane from between her breasts and puts it in my hairy little palm has displayed at least one of the required elements of superior theatrical achievement. There's much more to enjoy in Regali, Fantasmi e Canti,a quirky production of Rude Guerrilla that tries to blend A Christmas Carol with commedia dell'arte.

The operative word here is "tries" because director David Gallo and his colleagues aren't interested in a highly refined mixture of Dickens and Italian Renaissance theater. This low-brow, ill-mannered production is more a choppy, chunky theatrical frappe of strange, identifiable stuff. In its best moments, it's also a lot of fun.

Gallo's background work is evident in this refreshingly faithful commedia dell'arte production. Too often, companies take one or two elements of this venerated and highly influential theater form and try to pass off their plays as such. Here, we have recognizable stock characters like Scruglione (Pantalone), male characters wearing grotesque masks, song-and-dance interludes, and most important, an inventive and anarchic spirit.

There's also the barest of plots (very loosely based on A Christmas Carol) which serves as a framework around which the real business at hand is erected—comic improvisation, ad-libs and a range of songs, including a kazoo version of Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida."

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The energetic five-person cast is mostly up to the task, particularly Andrew Nienaber's nasty chicken-ranch owner, Scruglione, and Todd Hopkins' Piombino, the harried employee who devises a plan to haunt his boss with three apparitions in order to get Christmas Day off.

That's about as far as the spoof goes. Drawing on more contemporary comic improvisation, actors single out members of the audience for ideas on what ghosts to portray. On the night I saw the show, those ideas included a podiatrist and the Grinch. This is clearly a show that can be severely hindered by an unimaginative audience.

The cast strays widely within these loose moorings. Nienaber is particularly effective at improvisation, displaying a biting sense of humor made more malicious by his stooped posture and comically distorted mask. (Whoever designed those masks—or whoever borrowed them from whatever theater—is the unsung hero of this production). Overall, however, comic timing is something that can be improved throughout the show. In a production like this, in which plot, substance and ideas are all gleefully subordinated to coarse humor and absurd antics, onstage dead time is onstage death. There are too many empty moments during which we can almost see wheels turn in the heads of some of the less-experienced cast members as they try to figure out where to go next.

Still, even in its roughest, least polished moments, this is a very watchable show, one that probably changes radically from night to night. It's as faithful to commedia dell'arte as it is to Rude Guerrilla's risk-taking ethos—except this time, the risk isn't that people will be offended by bare flesh on stage; it's the risk of actors falling flat on their snouts by daring to try something new. In the final analysis, that's a far more adventurous choice anyhow.

Regali, Fantasmi e Canti at the Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $10-$12.

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