by Michael Bowen

Your pastor knows who you are. You're the one who only shows up once a year. (OK, you're not the only one, but still.) You think holiday worship services aren't calculated, at least in part, to get you to return after the holidays are over? You think local theaters don't know about all you once-a-year playgoers?

They're all set to give us the kind of festive and communal event we seem to crave this time of year. But they're also hoping to set up some return business.

"People want to establish a tradition over the holidays," says Kate Vander Wende, director of marketing and development at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble. "They want a special experience." They could just go out to a fancy dinner or something, "but this is more significant than that," she adds. "After all, we're creating memories here.

"People are creatures of habit. In the spring, maybe they're used to going outside to have fun," Vander Wende continues. "But maybe, if we can get them in here over the holidays, they'll remember us in the spring, and the good times they had here -- and maybe they'll come back."

Spokane Children's Theater will make its pitch for your holiday -- and return -- business with The Snow Queen (Nov. 26-Dec. 12 at Spokane Community College). Director Maria Caprile is herding a cast of 75 (!), with some cast members as young as 4. Entire families are part of the mob: Both the Hocketts and the Wamsleys, for example, are contributing one mother and three children apiece.

The Snow Queen, says Caprile, "is vintage Hans Christian Andersen -- meaning dark and moralistic -- and I read seven different scripts trying to find one that wasn't too weird or scary for kids." She finally found a musical version intended for children's theater "that took all the creepy characters and turned them on their heads so that they're funny."

In the story, Kai and Gerda are friends in Denmark "about 100 years ago." A trio of naughty imps create a magic mirror that makes everything appear ugly, then break it into a million pieces. You don't want to get a shard in your eye -- but when Kai (Jasper Danielson) does, suddenly Gerda doesn't seem so cute anymore. When the title monarch (Monika Hawkinson) lures Kai to her world of ice, Gerda (Alexandra Kraft) sets off on a rescue mission. Will she be able to maneuver past dancing flowers, pretentious crows, hungry robbers and silly pirates -- and eventually rescue Kai? Here's your spoiler: The final scene takes place at Grandma's house -- on Christmas morning.

That's one way to connect a show to the holiday season. At the Civic, Seussical the Musical (Nov. 19-Dec. 18) tries another method: weaving a quilt from bits of 14 Dr. Seuss stories and then finishing up with a Christmas flourish. With the Cat in the Hat as narrator, a little boy named JoJo just trying to stay out of trouble, Mayzie worried about her egg, Gertrude fretting over her tail and the Whos just trying to survive, Seussical has plenty going on with a cast of 23 and nearly 30 musical numbers. So what's the connection to the holiday season? "It actually ends at Christmas," says director Jean Hardie. "JoJo wants to go home and enjoy some of the Grinch's Christmas."

The Broadway version (with music and lyrics by Steven Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the team behind Ragtime and the animated Anastasia, with an assist from Monty Python's Eric Idle) was criticized for its rambling structure. Surprisingly, three-quarters of Ahrens' lyrics are not taken directly from the Seuss books, but blended in with them. "You'd have to be a Seuss-aholic to notice," says Hardie. "She did a great job of matching the Seuss cadences."

As played by North Central grad Max Kumangai-McGee, she says, "Our Cat has a kind of Louis Armstrong to Ray Charles kind of vibe. In various scenes, says Hardie, the Cat is a talk show host, a newscaster, an auctioneer, head of a circus and a doctor who knows how to help Gertrude grow her tail."

Seussical is timely during the holiday season because of the lessons it teaches -- Hardie lists compassion, acceptance of differences ("a person's a person no matter how small"), an antiwar message, the importance of inner (not just outer) beauty, and steadfast devotion. Greg Pschirrer plays Horton as "staunch, someone who takes something on and carries it through -- a real fighter," says Hardie. And Horton's mantra, after all, is that "an elephant's faithful 100 percent."

Three local theaters will faithfully present theatrical delights based on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which was first written 161 years ago.

The most traditional of the local Christmas Carols will be at Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene (Dec. 3-19), and while director Noel Barbuto isn't "making any drastic changes," he is tinkering with the appearance and import of the three ghosts who come to haunt old Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Barbuto has "about nine kids" in his cast of 16, he says. "I had lots of kids try out, and I got this amazing little girl, Jordan Ferraro, to do the Spirit of Christmas Past." Referring to the three ghosts, Barbuto says, "It's always been girl, guy and then the future [spirit] is androgynous.

"For the Ghost of Christmas Future," Barbuto says, "the ghost of Marley -- it's what he becomes after he dies -- all withered, grotesque and covered with chains." The idea is to represent how, for Scrooge, one bad choice after another has turned him into a repulsive soul.

For the ghost of Christmas Future, says Barbuto, local actor Patrick Treadway (who's playing Marley in ARt's holiday production) "is building a huge, huge puppet. By the time we get to Christmas Future, I don't want it to be excruciatingly frightening -- but as a result of all the bad choices [Scrooge] has made over the years, his spirit will resemble an old, bitter-looking female troll. I see her almost as almost like a soul -- his female soul or female guardian angel, since supposedly angels don't have gender," says Barbuto.

The Lake City Dickens show will feature a "very animated" Chris LeBlanc as Scrooge, Al Metz as Marley and the opportunity to join in some sing-along Christmas carols at the end.

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, the Actor's Rep production at Spokane Falls Community College (Nov. 26-Dec. 12), sheds additional light on the relationship between the two old misers. That's because playwright Tom Mula has rounded out Dickens' narrative with motives. As director Michael Weaver says, "In the Dickens story, we don't know why Marley shows up in chains and starts bothering Ebeneezer. But here they all have motivations, they all have a reason for acting the way they do."

The ARt production features Patrick Treadway as Marley, David Seitz as Scrooge, Carolyn Crabtree as the Bogle (a kind of "perverse Tinkerbelle" who accompanies Marley in his quest for redemption), and Ron Ford as the Record Keeper and in a variety of other parts (though all four play multiple roles).

Jacob Marley is told "story theater" style, and it can be disconcerting when the four cast members dart between playing their roles and narrating from within those same roles. But Weaver explains that "There are the lines they speak as characters in the play, the lines they narrate, and the lines they narrate from within the characters, providing an emotional through-line for the action." Mula originally developed Jacob Marley as a novella, then a one-man show and finally in the four-actor version to be seen at ARt, necessitating the narrative style.

And at a recent rehearsal, it's evident that Treadway's characterization of Marley, ranging from playful to anguished, gains in intensity when actor portraying those emotions narrates his own emotional states. At one point, Seitz (as Scrooge) was on his knees, clutching after his coins; at another juncture, Ford was truly frightening as Marley's abusive father.

In a similarly dark vein, Renae Meredith's set, all platforms festooned with chains, will suggest nothing either Victorian or Christmas-y. But that's not to say that Jacob Martley at ARt isn't after the same heartwarming effects as traditional approaches to Dickens's tale. As Weaver says, "It's the same message, just a different vehicle. It doesn't make fun of A Christmas Carol -- it uses [the Dickens story] as a jumping-off place. It's irreverent, and it has a modern sensibility. It's what Dickens would have written today."

Another modern take on Dickens will be performed over at Interplayers -- and they're pretty excited about it. Inspecting Carol (Nov. 18-Dec. 18), originated by Dan Sullivan and the Seattle Rep in 1991, hasn't been seen in Spokane in 11 years. "This has been the most requested play by our patrons, when we ask them what plays they would like to see in a new season," says Interplayers' Vander Wende. "Plus, it was a huge hit when it played here in '93."

The play combines Dickens with the comedic setup from Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General: A government official is arriving to check out the local folks -- who, falling all over themselves to kowtow to the bigwig, promptly identify the wrong guy. In the case of Inspecting Carol, the cast of a small regional theater (all similarities to Interplayers are purely coincidental), while preparing to do A Christmas Carol for the 13th time, settle upon a rookie actor instead of the actual representative of the National Endowment of the Arts. The amateur actor (Damon Mentzer) is so naive about theater that his straightforwardness is taken for familiarity and an authoritative manner.

Roger Welch, who portrays the actor who plays Bob Cratchit in the inset play, says that Inspecting Carol is "a commentary on theater people, the inside scoop. And it asks, 'What is art?' and the whole making art vs. making money thing.

"In a bigger sense," he says, "it's about a big, dysfunctional family, this cast of actors." Yet if it doesn't have Dickens' heartwarming conclusion, "it's not a sad ending, either," says Welch.

From the start, director Nike Imoru intended this as a genuinely community production. She's pleased as she notes that "three students from Gonzaga co-designed the set. A Whitworth student is doing the lighting. And a student from Spokane Falls Community College has designed the sound."

As for the cast, "When you've got actors as skilled and giving and energetic as this lot -- I don't know if I'm doing anything, really," Imoru says, modestly. With local favorites like Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Jone Campbell Bryan in the cast, this Carol seems likely to pass inspection.

Imoru, herself an artistic director, has three more in the cast: Welch of Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater, Bryan Jackson of the Onyx Theater Troupe and Troy Nickerson of Spokane Theatrical Group. Life imitates art: All four have faced the same problem of playing off artistic merit against commercial viability.

Artistic directors want audiences to flock in through turnstiles during the holidays. As for commercial success, holiday shows like the Dickens original and its spinoffs are sure-fire successes. But the real test is the matter of return business. Just as lots of people attend church at Easter, local theaters will need their springtime patrons too.

Publication date: 11/18/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.