What makes a work of art timeless? We tend to confer classic status upon art that somehow manages to transcend its own era and speak to every age. Picasso created Guernica to invoke the mayhem and bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War, but his canvas engulfs the viewer completely in its portrayal of eternal conflict. Shakespeare's The Tempest, meanwhile, reflects England's early-17th-century rise as a colonial power, but the playwright's view of Jacobean international relations still resonates powerfully today. The sad thing about classics, though, is that they're prone to overexposure. It's hard to listen to the opening notes of Richard Strauss' great tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra without images of 2001: A Space Odyssey and countless TV commercials floating before our eyes. Similarly, lines like “To be or not to be” and “We're not in Kansas anymore” are bandied about so frequently that they've practically lost their meaning.
Playwright Christopher Durang gamely exploits this spirit of cultural overplay in Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. Durang's 2002 spoof on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is by no means a great work of art. Spattered like a gaudily baubled Christmas tree with inane jokes, flimsy characters, and dated cultural references (not to mention multiple opportunities for cross-dressing and the appearance of actors in the guise of farm animals), the comedy is crafted in the tradition of an old-fashioned British pantomime. But what it does have going for it — besides the advantage of being brought to life by SF Playhouse's fun-loving, gung-ho cast — is the author's gleeful demolition job on the very notion of the “enduring masterpiece.”
Mrs. Bob might look at the very outset like a faithful retelling of the famous Christmas story, with its depiction of the curmudgeonly moneybags, Ebenezer Scrooge, haranguing his impoverished but faithful employee, Bob Cratchit. But things quickly derail. Instead of focusing on Scrooge's heart-warming journey from sourpuss to sweetheart, Durang turns his attention to Cratchit's wife, a hard-bitten protofeminist whose idea of a fun way to spend the holiday season (as Durang, not Dickens, would have it) is getting drunk alone in a bar before throwing herself off a nearby bridge. Durang's three-in-one Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future attempts to redeem Scrooge, but the spirit's plans go haywire when Mrs. Cratchit finds herself dragged into Scrooge's visions of his former, current, and forthcoming lives. Before long, Dickens' eternal tale celebrating the season of goodwill becomes quite the opposite — a story about the hollowness of human behavior.
From the random appearances of characters from other Dickens novels such as Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop to the helium-filled song lyrics (“Be happy and perky, you're gonna eat turkey/Be snippy and snappy, 'cause Christmas is happy,” etc.) Durang makes an eggnog shake out of Dickens' fable. SF Playhouse's cast and production team appear to relish every sip. Under Joy Carlin's bold but punctilious direction, the actors gleefully stamp up and down on set designer Kim A. Tolman's massive, three-dimensional reconstructions of dog-eared hardbacks, making a strong statement about the play's irreverent approach to so-called classics.
The performers do a particularly fine job of deconstructing Dickens in the ensemble scenes and musical numbers. During the scene that takes place in the home of the jolly Fezziwig family (Scrooge's former employer) the actors wear enormous fuzzy — or, rather, fezzy — ginger wigs, adding an extra layer of ridicule to the action. And in what is perhaps the daftest moment in the whole extravaganza, Bob Cratchit and his children unwittingly torture the carol-hating Scrooge with their painful rendition of “Silent Night” performed at an insufferably plodding pace (“Sing it slower, children,” the head of the household commands, oblivious to the invisible Scrooge's suffering. “Drag it out.”) Coupled with occasional outbursts like “God bless us, every one” and “Oh, my little heart may burst” from that odious little creep, Tiny Tim, the scene hilariously sends up the inanity of hackneyed Christmas traditions — the annual ritual of performing A Christmas Carol chief among them.
With no less than six stage adaptations trundling across local stages right now, Dickens' mothballed fable is a classic slowly suffocating from overexposure. Mrs. Bob may be timely in its satire of timelessness, but I'm not convinced that the folks at SF Playhouse have grasped the full significance of what it means to perform this play. It's a suicide bomb —an exercise in self-destruction — because the very act of staging Mrs. Bob undermines its own satire. The production's program notes give the game away. In the program, Carlin recalls an e-mail exchange with the playwright in which she suggests updating the many dated pop-culture references to make them seem more relevant to a contemporary audience. But to even suggest substituting Angelina Jolie for Mia Farrow is to misunderstand Durang's central point. The references — which are either already past their prime (Touched by an Angel, Leona Helmsley), or soon will be (the Enron scandal) — are purposely dated. They're meant to undermine A Christmas Carol's canonic status as a timeless classic. Unsurprisingly, the playwright politely declined Carlin's request.
If Durang's play soon feels so passé that it can no longer be performed, Dickens' original may eventually go the same way. In creating this satire, it's as if the playwright is saying that Mrs. Bob won't be around for long — and when she goes, she's taking Dickens down with her. At least, that's the hope. Ironically, I don't think theater companies and audiences see things this way. As long as there's tinsel on the tree and the scent of Starbucks' Peppermint Mocha or Gingerbread Latte in the air, theater companies — even ones edgy enough to present Durang's bastardized version — will continue to flog Dickens' story to death, and audiences will carry on paying to watch the execution.