A&E | Northwest Herald

Review: ‘A Christmas Chaos’ unwraps cleverly conceived farce

William Athow (from left) and John McDonnell appear in "A Christmas Chaos."

Why does playwright Michael Wehrli’s holiday farce “A Christmas Chaos” work so well? For one thing, it’s a very funny tribute to the season; for another, it identifies with a beloved classic and, best of all, there’s a cast of characters embodying a myriad of theatrical types that theater companies and audiences everywhere can identify with only too well. Embracing those elements, Elgin Theatre Company’s production of “A Christmas Chaos” is a hilarious, fast-paced treat.

The accomplished director, Julie Price, has assembled an appealing ensemble of 17 actors. On a set humorously attributed to Elgin yard sales, in merrily appropriate, colorful costumes by Elizabeth Kubis de Vries and Julie Price, the actors are continually energetic and delightful.

So here’s the premise: The professional Royal Shakespeare Company is on its way to do its traditional rendition of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” However, they’ve erred in their destination location and are stuck in Elgin, North Dakota.

This forces the left-in-the-lurch theater company in Elgin, Illinois, to figure out what to do – and quickly – as tickets have been sold and there’s an audience waiting. Despite their efforts to stall by presenting an Icelandic accordion and ukulele tribute to 15th-century Icelandic ballads (aka “a feast for your aural receptors”), the company decides to do their own version of a less than six-hour-rehearsed production of “A Christmas Carol.” Of course, anything and everything will go wrong in their presentation, which falls prey to chaos, forgotten lines, mishaps, displays of ego and thrown-together, not so appropriate props.

Devon Ortiz (from left) and Shirley May Byrnes appear in "A Christmas Chaos."

The ETC ensemble members truly have a great deal of fun onstage with an audience that appreciates every second of their wackiness. Most of the actors portray multiple characters, as they follow the guidance of the velvet-voiced Judith Ross as narrator, and the very flustered, first-time director played by Devon Ortiz, who sits in the audience bellowing comments and charging the stage frequently. Both Ross and Ortiz are blessed with expressive faces. The backstage and onstage mayhem is under the “deal with it – chill” direction of stage manager/actress Elizabeth Dawson, who radiates charm and talent in her dual, close-to-reality roles.

Equally engaging are quite a few scene-stealers: Eileen Mitchell is the perfect, confused actress, who has taken an antihistamine and is quite oblivious as to what play she’s in, as evidenced by her interference and the costumes she appears in; the majestic “and we’re walking” Dwight Brown who appears as the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, Linda Sak’s Marley, who unabashedly announces, “You will be haunted by three spirits – check your emails for dates and times.”; and Ryan Segovich’s hilarious Monty Python-like Bob/Mrs. Cratchit.

To comically complicate matters, there are two boys constantly fighting over the role of Tiny Tim: the lightning-quick Everet Poreda and the voracious singer Jackson Gross. Just please don’t ask him to sing “Jingle Bells.” There’s also the stage-frightened Fred understudy and company costumer engagingly portrayed by Elizabeth Kubis de Vries, and a playwright who keeps adapting the company’s version, verbosely and theatrically played by John McDonnell. Even the operators of lighting (Ed Dawson) and sound (Faith Hollander) have participatory roles as characters not enamored with the director and more interested in a reality TV show discussion. Rounding out the hapless ensemble are Kristen O’Neill, a wonderful wife/Mary/young Scrooge and the fiercest deliverer of the stage slap I’ve ever seen, Jason Gross as the stalwart Peter and businessman, and Shirley May Byrnes as the direct and pleasant Charity Lady.

But the majority of the show rests on William Athow’s capable shoulders; he portrays the company’s pretentious actor, the “professional” cast as Scrooge. Athow deftly conveys emotions ranging from frustration to joy as he attempts to maintain his dignity and the integrity of the Dickens classic. He is also a master of clear diction in delivering Scrooge’s lines, even if repeated “Bah, humbugs” suffice to cover the company’s wayward progress. Athow is a confident and compelling actor. How he can keep a straight face with all that’s going on around him is commendable.

Elgin Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Chaos” is that rare intersection of entertainment and adherence to clever playwriting, but “Bah, humbug,” you only have until Nov. 20 to enjoy the holiday comedy.

[The show runs 90 minutes with one intermission. It will be sign-acted for people with hearing impairment on Sunday by Andrew Ross.]

• Regina Belt-Daniels has been involved with the theater ever since she was cast as a rather bossy Mother Goose in the first grade. (Type casting?) Since then she’s produced, stage managed, acted and directed plays and musicals for RCLPC, TownSquare Players, Woodstock Musical Theatre, Elgin Theatre Company, MCC and Independent Players. She also enjoys being a member of the audience and writing theater reviews when not traveling with her husband.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “A Christmas Chaos”

WHERE: Elgin Art Showcase, eighth floor, 164 Division St., Elgin

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18 and 19, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20

COST: $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and students

INFORMATION: 847-741-0532, elgin-theatre.org, tickets@inil.com