Stage

Christmas in Drag
Bill and Chuck and Scrooge. By Danny Scheie. Directed by Scheie. Starring Scheie, Liam Vincent, and Richard Ciccarone. At the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), through Dec. 20. Call 826-5750.

With the bitchy jolt of gay theater-queen ego last June known as Dr. Scheie's Traffic School, Danny Scheie showed he had a talent for writing outrageously funny cabaret. The man can sing, the man can dance, the man can pretend to be a slut named Swap Meet Girl. But can he write a coherent script for more than one person (himself)? Bill and Chuck and Scrooge is his debut effort in this direction. It's an anti-Christmas Carol, and with Mark Morris' Hard Nut becoming as entrenched in Berkeley as The Nutcracker is in almost every other town on Earth, Bill and Chuck and Scrooge promised to be this season's fresh gay alternative to predictable holiday shows.

The premise is simple. Bev, the hectoring artistic directress of a nameless regional theater, has brought Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare back from the dead to write a holiday show that will save her theater from bankruptcy. A Christmas Carol failed to make money last year, she says, and she's sick of it anyway. "We're supposed to worry that Tiny Tim is going to die year after year after year?" What she wants is something "borrowed," maybe a revamp of A Christmas Carol itself, something "like Pixar" that the whole family will pay top box-office to see. Dickens is vexed that A Christmas Carol is being used to make money at all, since it was meant as "an indictment of capitalism," and Shakespeare is so irredeemably gay here (as he was in Traffic School) that Bev threatens to stick "a can up your ass if you're gonna queer up my Christmas play."

The concept has all the ingredients of good satire. And Scheie's script milks Bill and Chuck for perspective not just on the meaning of A Christmas Carol but also on the financing of American theater (Shakespeare can't understand why the show isn't subsidized by the Crown). But since Bev and her scrooginess is the point of the play, Scheie completely overwhelms the other actors with her poison tongue. Liam Vincent and Richard Ciccarone try, admirably, to hold their own as Chuck and Bill, but their parts are too flimsy to serve even as a backboard for Bev's lines. The show never picks up and runs the way Traffic School did; Scheie seems hindered either by the other actors or by the burden of having to direct himself, or both. Some of this is timing, and should get better as the run matures -- I saw the show in preview -- but a good part of it is writerly disorganization. Bill and Chuck and Scrooge just can't decide whether it's about gays in theater, theater in America, or (the best thing about it) Danny Scheie in drag.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Verdict Is In
Verdict. By Agatha Christie. Directed by Patrick Dooley. Starring Richard Silberg, Beth Donohue, Erin Merritt, and Emily Ackerman. At the Adeline Street Theater, 3280 Adeline (near Ashby) in Berkeley, through Jan. 10. Call (510) 655-0813.

The first production of Agatha Christie's Verdict was a miserable failure, booed by the gallery on opening night because of a miscue -- so the story goes -- that caused the curtain to fall too soon. But the play really isn't so bad. And the fact that the Shotgun Players would polish up this near-forgotten relic instead of doing The Mousetrap or some stage adaptation of Murder on the Nile marks a return to form, since making risky material work is what they do best -- if you ignore their last show, Mascara.

Verdict plays out in the book-lined study of Professor Karl Hendryk, a political emigre (from Germany? Russia?) who declines a lavish offer of tuition from a rich young woman. Helen Rollander wants private lessons from Hendryk, but the professor believes she isn't serious; he would rather give his time to dedicated scholars. Helen's rich and indulgent father makes a personal call to the professor and offers him cutting-edge medicine for the professor's wife, Anya, to treat a sclerotic condition that keeps her in a wheelchair. Hendryk has no choice, one thing leads to another, and Helen gives Anya an overdose of some heart drug. Verdict is not a whodunit -- we see the murder happen -- because Christie was trying to be literary, and the final mystery of the play is a dark one of character rather than plot.

The script is not a total success. It has wit, dash, humor; but it also has a ridiculous confession of love that feels so unmotivated it should be played for laughs. And the side of Hendryk's character Christie wants to condemn -- a devotion to principles, not people -- is unconvincing. There's something brittle and guarded about the morality here, and Verdict offers a taste of what Christie's critics meant when they charged her with failing to understand totalitarianism.

But as a story, the play is a lot of fun. Trish Mulholland plays a brilliant charwoman, Mrs. Roper, full of cockney inflection and bug-eyed faces; Kevin Karrick plays a nicely understated Dr. Stoner, who at least as much as the beautiful set gives the show a stolid British air; Emily Ackerman has good rich-girl flourishes as Helen Rollander; and Brian Linden, as her daddy, has a wonderfully sinister manner in his homburg, ashplant, and coat. Richard Silberg needs improving -- Hendryk's accent is forced -- but otherwise the cast seems to enjoy doing the show immensely, and no one in Berkeley on opening night, at least, tried to boo them off the stage.

-- Michael Scott Moore

 
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