By Pat Craig


To settle this matter once and for all: This year, go see Center Rep's "A Christmas Carol" in Walnut Creek.

And next year, see ACT's "A Christmas Carol" in San Francisco.

Then keep doing this until you have firmly created a trans-Bay family Christmas tradition.

Speaking as someone who saw ACT's version on Tuesday and Center Rep's on Thursday, all I can tell you is seeing both in such proximity is too much figgy pudding for all but the most dedicated Scrooge-ophile.

While the two productions are vastly different - generally speaking, ACT's is much more abstract and Center Rep's decidedly traditional - they are still dealing with the same source material, and nobody needs to see the Dickens tale retold more than once each season. Really, take it from a guy who has seen "A Christmas Carol" annually for more than two decades - and more than two versions a year for more years than I'd like to count.

I have the feeling the only reason I see the show so often now is for the outside chance that somebody in the cast will take the backstage good wishes literally and actually break a leg. And I would be ready to go on and play any character at any point in the story; I'm just that familiar with it.

To answer the question I feel obligated to answer, this year I enjoyed Center Rep's production the most overall. That said, I don't think anyone has come close to James Carpenter's interpretation of Scrooge for ACT.

In fact, the ACT production was pretty much the Scrooge show, with all but Ken Ruta as Marley's Ghost (and the kids dressed as Spanish onions and Turkish figs) paling before this lanky, longhaired and decidedly funny Scrooge.

Center Rep's production, which also features Ruta in a wonderful recorded performance as the narrator, is closer to Dickens, but it ventures into the valley of the strange with Michael Ray Wisely playing the Ghost of Christmas Present as a refugee from "Brigadoon." Somehow the Scottish brogue caps Wisely's wildly hysterical characterization. There is no reason the ghost has to be Scottish, but he is much funnier that way.

Jack Powell, the delightfully cranky Center Rep Scrooge, has made the role his own for the past five years, and he seems to get stronger and find new dimensions to his character each time.

The Scott Denison-directed piece at Center Rep also has found new depth and shades of meaning over the years, if for no other reason than to keep its cast of regulars engaged enough to make sure the production's fresh and audiences keep coming back.

Kelly Tighe's expansive Center Rep set continues to amaze with its flexibility and it creates a much deeper Victorian mood than the more fanciful ACT set.


By Pat Craig


"GOD BLESS US EVERY ONE!" is the blessing offered by plucky little Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," now with two major and any number of smaller productions throughout the Bay Area.

To slant the blessing in a slightly more local way, Tiny Pat will point out that the area is blessed with two excellent productions of the classic yuletide tale -- a new (now in its third year) interpretation by San Francisco's ACT, and the now-decade-old perennial by Walnut Creek's Center Rep.

And since the staff here at One Hand Clapping is often asked to recommend a version of the story to see, much of Tuesday was spent viewing both productions.

The best answer, without regard to time or money, is to see both shows. They are very different versions of the same story, each remarkably satisfying in its own way.

ACT's is a highly stylized and extremely theatrical telling of the story. It would be a particularly good one to see if you have made "A Christmas Carol" an annual part of your seasonal celebration. James Carpenter is flat-out great as Scrooge. A tall, lanky man, he brings some athleticism to the role and presents a unique and captivating interpretation of the miser who discovers his inner Christmas spirit, following a torturous night of spirit visitors.

It is a memorable script, adapted by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh. It's a splashy, speedy show that, like its Center Rep counterpart, runs about two hours, with intermission. The show is heavy on special effects, many of them quite spooky, which may make the show a bit intense for younger children.

Of course, there are frightening elements to the story itself -- visits by spirits, the suffering of Jacob Marley and Scrooge's death-to-come. But in the Center Rep version, these are presented in a less intense manner.

Center Rep's adaptation, by Cynthia Caywood and Richard James, is a more straightforward telling of the tale (with enough smoke and special effects to keep it interesting). It's probably a better show for youngsters not familiar with the story, or those who don't get to the theater often, since the yarn is spun in a more accessible way.

From a personal point of view, what tilts me more toward the Center Rep production is the presentation of the ghosts, particularly Michael Ray Wisely's unique take on the Ghost of Christmas Present. From the time he emerges in an explosion of confetti from Scrooge's unoccupied bed, Wisely steals the show, and creates a character that will bring you back year after year. Wisely's performance, coupled with Ken Ruta's recorded narration and Kelly Tighe's delightfully detailed set, makes this production the champ.

But it's close, very close.