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Friday, December 13, 2019

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‘Tis the Season

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Kathleen Oliver, Carol’s Christmas, Arts Club, Vancouver,
until Jan. 4, 2003
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Bad art is ennervating, really bad art is exhausting. Case in point: Kathleen Oliver’s Carol’s Christmas, a theatrical retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol–Xmas carol, Carol’s Xmas, get it? I thought you would–now rollicking through the holiday season at Vancouver’s Arts Club theatre on Granville Island.

I’m not much of a theatre-goer, but my theatre-going companion had comps. What’s it called again? I asked. Carol’s Christmas, he repeated. I made a little sound. I know the playwright, he said, to quell my suspicions. Turns out Ms. Oliver is the author of a sizzling lesbian drama, Swollen Tongues, and helped write the script for Vancouver dancemeister Judith Marcuse’s Fire, so we were probably pretty safe that this would not be the cheery, smarmy, sentimental season’s greeting it threateningly sounded like.

Once in the theatre and reading the program, I nudged my theatre companion and reported, "It says here: ‘The central theme of Carol’s Christmas is that the world is a much nicer place when people are generous and kind than when they are selfish and greedy.’" My theatre companion raised an eyebrow. And since every sane human being knows that that’s not true, you don’t suppose they mean it, do you? I asked. They’re probably putting us on, he said.

If only.

Carol’s Christmas is an updated orthodox retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as any boob could have figured out unless, like us, they are postmodern liberal ironists who have seen a lot of theoretical water wash under the bridge. Despite our expectations of a real play, complete with pity and terror, Carol is an unabashedly lite comic entertainment, again something everyone in the middle-aged bourgie audience figured out in advance except for a couple of smartguys.

Here are the updated plot elements: Scrooge is Carol (played by Kerry Sandomirsky), a vicious, avaricious, unredeemable, right-wing radio talk show host, and everybody else is everybody else who is in Dickens’ tearjerker, except for a black radio technician (played by Dion Johnstone) who is Carol’s rather implausible once and future love-interest. There are various ghosts of Xmas past and present–one of them is Carol’s deceased dad (played by Allan Morgan in a weird imitation of Rob Reiner’s rendition of Meathead on the Archie Bunker 70s TV hit, All in the Family)–and the requisite complement of starving babes, dying mums, and mentally retarded kinfolk.

Now, as it happens, there is a right-wing radio talk show host in Vancouver named Pia Shandel, a creepy, slimy specimen of the talk show genre, who sports and spouts all the standard opinions about welfare, homos, crime, liberals and the like. She’s locally notorious for a string of ex-husbands, most of whom committed suicide. A half-hour into the sit-com shenanigans–I was already at the why-am-I-watching-this? stage–I figured it out. It’s the Pia Shandel Story, I whispered to my theatre companion. But I was still puzzled. After all, nobody’s heard of Pia Shandel outside of Vancouver. Isn’t this awfully local? What are they going to do when the show hits the road? Are they going to try to palm this off on Toronto audiences as the Dr. Laura Story? But anyway, who cares if Scrooge-Carol-Pia-Dr. Laura gets religion, repentence, redemption, resurrection? After all, Pia Shandel wasn’t all that interesting even before she opportunistically reinvented herself as a right-wing radioland monster.

It was half-time. My theatre companion had a case of the seasonal sniffles and I volunteered to forgo the second act in the name of his health. Maybe they’ll rescue it, he said, ever hopeful, turning down our chance to escape. They’ll never rescue it, I said, never-ever-ever. Maybe Scrooge-Carol-Pia will become a serial murderer in the second act, he suggested. I momentarily cheered up.

That’s the thing that is exhausting about really bad art. Since your mind really has nothing to do in response to the attempted art (even if it’s only supposed to be brisk repartee), you burn a lot of energy busily wondering about the author, things like, What was she thinking of?, and your brain is churning out rescues, alternative plot endings (like Carol becoming a serial murderer) and pointless ruminations on aesthetic style ("Is this meant to be a parody of an old ‘I Love Lucy’ episode, or….?"). And even if Carol becomes a serial murderer and it is indeed a parody of an "I Love Lucy" episode, which thus brings the whole thing closer to Charles Ludlum’s Theatre of the Ridiculous experiments in New York before the plague wiped out legions, well, so what? There’s also a bit of, Forget the "what was she thinking of," pay some attention to "what was I thinking of coming to this?" Just because you go to the theatre, you think it’s going to be Samuel Beckett? At the end of all this mental exercise, you feel like a used-up kleenex.

Carol doesn’t become a serial murderer. Carol’s Christmas plays it strictly according to form, complete with turkey-aid to the local homeless shelter, blessings on Mr. Cratchit’s clan, home for the holidays, and to all a good night. Even as lite witty middle-class comedy, it’s a total dud. Worse than TV. I spent most of the second half trying to remember who played Scrooge in the 1938 film version that they show on TV every Xmas. Was it Basil Rathbone or Leslie Howard? Whoops, wrong on both guesses. Reginald Owen. Alastair Sim did the 1951 remake, for those of you who are slightly obsessive.

I swear I wouldn’t have mentioned a word of any of this–I would have kept it to myself; after all, why should I pester you about some minor, soon-to-be-forgotten theatrical failure?–if I hadn’t picked up the Globe and Mail this morning to find an enthusiastic, burbling, Three-Star (***!) review of this piece of dreck. "Comedy on a Christmas platter," by one Alexandra Gill, reports that "this new comedy by Kathleen Oliver had the audience in stitches… If you’re looking for some inspiration to help kick-start your holiday spirit, go see it now, while there’s still time to book a flight home for Christmas."

Bah, humbug.

Dec. 6, 2002, Vancouver

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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