A Tale of Two Ditties

A tale of two Carols: one takes place in an immaculately well-appointed theater, with well-paid actors wearing lavish costumes on a gorgeous set in a graceful, visually stimulating presentation.

The other takes place in the back yard of a small caf on a busy street in downtown Santa Ana. There's graffiti on the walls, power lines overhead, barking dogs, loud buses, and a particularly clueless neighbor next door with a very loud stereo.

The first is South Coast Repertory's 20th anniversary of its adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The second is Abuelito's Mexican Christmas Carol, the debut production of Orange County's newest theater company, Teatro Indigena, whose first offering ran for four performances at Koo's Art Cafe.

SCR may sit atop the mountain—financially secure, greatly respected, a major player in American regional theater—and Teatro Indigena may have to wait until the ridiculously loud punk band inside Koo's finishes in order to be heard, but there's a weird kismet between the two. They're connected by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a play-from-a-novel that has been done so many times in so many ways by so many theaters that it's very, very easy to forget that this is one of our Great Stories, one of the great literary myths of the modern age, a wake-the-fuck-up-and-realize-you're-alive zinger that, 150 years after it was written, applies as much today as it did during Dickens' time.

Dickens' moral is alluded to quite early in SCR's A Christmas Carol, adapted 20 years ago by the theater's literary manager, Jerry Patch. Scrooge's nephew Fred reminds his crusty uncle that Christmas is the one time of year when we can stop being self-absorbed, when we can comprehend one another as something more than nuisances and acquaintances: we're fellow passengers heading toward the same destination.

That theme runs throughout this adaptation, supported by a noticeable but never heavy-handed allusion to class differences. Scrooge is nothing less than the solidly bourgeois businessman who profited so mightily during England's rise from the nation of shopkeepers to the keeper of an empire. He coldly dismisses hungry carolers as whining ragamuffins, favors shuffling the poor—who are all, of course, lazy idlers—into workhouses or prisons, and takes a Malthusian approach to those lazy idlers who can't help their situation: let 'em die in order to reduce "the surplus population."

Of course Scrooge is a mean, bitter man. Of course no one should think that way during Christmas or any other time. Of course that's still the prevailing view of many people in this very county, where the homeless population continues to skyrocket even in boom times.

But SCR's production is concerned far less with the social message than with personal transformation. Yes, the difference in station between the Cratchits' dreary home and Scrooge's nephew's opulent Christmas party is obvious, but there's no attempt here to make the Cratchits' poverty particularly noble or the wealthier characters foolish and foppish. Every person in this play, poor or wealthy, seems genuinely happy about Christmas, about the joy of human fellowship—except Scrooge. That's the poverty that concerns this Carol—not material poverty and society's obligation to help those in need, but rather Scrooge's spiritual poverty, his lack of faith in anything but his account ledgers, a kind of poverty that gnaws at the soul and prevents anyone from reaching out to his or her fellow passengers.

As usual, Scrooge's story is told very well in this production—although things do linger too long in the extended Christmas Past sequence. The production values, the supporting characters, and the rich scenic and costume elements add up to a familiar tale very well-told. People have argued that something new is needed to spice up SCR's annual celebration. I'm not so sure—although I did find myself missing some of the cooler special effects of years past. The ghosts' entrances in particular seem rather understated this year.

But this production, as always, soars best because of Hal Landon Jr., who is, once again, simply outstanding as Scrooge. After 20 years and at least 600 performances of this role, the fact that Landon still seems energized and enthusiastic as Scrooge is a rather remarkable testament to his dedication and skill.

At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of production values and history is Abuelito's Mexican Christmas Carol, the brainchild of Teatro Indigena founder Pablo Eduardo Rivera. A whimsical children's version of Dickens' classic told by a doddering grandfather to his adoring grandchildren, this play is a goofy, freewheeling ride. There are some snappy one-liners and some modestly funny bits; the play is more concerned with laughs than an innovative take on an endearing classic.

Much more interesting than the actual substance of this debut production are the people behind it. It appears as if Orange County once again has a Latino theater company that seems interested in finding its own space and presenting plays on a regular basis. It has been five years since the last one, El Teatro Cometa, was booted out of its downtown Fullerton theater. Aspiring replacements surface periodically, but there is no established Latino theater troupe anywhere in the county.

In contrast, Rivera seems determined to form a company and find a space in downtown Santa Ana that will allow him to feature new work, classic plays, children's plays and bilingual plays. With 15 years of experience in film, stage and TV, Rivera has ambitions more interesting than mere show biz.

"When Mexicans speak of indigena, they speak of the Indian people of Mexico," Rivera says. "These tribes have been around since the beginning of time and surely will survive long after we are gone. The name Teatro Indigena was chosen in honor of this ancient civilization and in the spirit of creating fruitful multicultural theater."

It's tempting to think Rivera will eventually have his own space that will feature a band of radical Chicano artists dedicated to staging confrontational, fiery agit-prop theater in the heart of Santa Ana. We'll see. In conversation, Rivera seems a very earnest, talented guy who loves theater and wants nothing more than to give something real back to his community.

Whatever direction Teatro Indigena chooses, it will be a welcome one. At its heart, theater is really simple: it's about telling stories, and any company that tells stories that aren't often addressed is a welcome addition to any theater community.

A Christmas Carol at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Thurs.-Fri., Dec. 23-24, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., noon & 4 p.m. $17-$39.


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