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Houston Christmas Stage Offerings in Virtual Format Courtesy of 2020

David Rainey in A Christmas Carol, the Alley's 2020 version.
David Rainey in A Christmas Carol, the Alley's 2020 version.
Photo by John Carrithers
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In the continuing pandemic when all stages are shuttered, the only refuge we have as theatergoers is to watch the computer screen.

At best, theaters are attempting to employ their actors and stagehands and provide us with much needed diversion. Unfortunately they haven't as yet conquered that dreaded Hollywood Squares look which has plagued us all with actors emoting in their own tiny little boxes. This might bring us close to them, certainly a lot closer than in the tenth row, but it seems to enforce their own separateness. They're acting alone, usually in their own home, interacting with their fellow players who may very well be miles away in their own house. It's a very disjointed experience for them and for us. But it's all we have for the foreseeable future.

Christmastime is theater's heyday, a period of intense holiday cheer whose productions bring in buckets of cash to fill the coffers. Many patrons are young first-timers, stepping foot inside a theater for their inaugural magical visit. With its seasonal message of hope and good will toward our fellow man, Christmas in the theater should have it all – comedy, pathos, an evil miser who finds redemption, perhaps a grownup who's been raised as an elf at the North Pole, or a dyspeptic grownup who plays an elf at Macy's Santaland. Or, maybe, in a more sacred mood, a tale of a crippled boy who's visited by the Magi on their travels to Bethlehem. There's an opera for that – Amahl and the Night Visitors. The ballet, of course, owns The Nutcracker with its whirling snowflakes and Candyland divertissements.

Main Street has found a pleasant niche in the holiday trade with its Pride and Prejudice sequels, Miss Bennet and The Wickhams, both subtitled Christmas at Pemberly, penned with great charm by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. In only a few years, Miss Bennet has become one of the most produced plays in the United States. It's easy to see why. It's full of grace, literary merit, woman power, and reeks of Regency attitude. With those Beau Brummel waistcoats, Empire dresses, and tony estate setting, it looks great on stage. It read great, too, witness Main Street's “live, virtual stage reading,” playing through Sunday on a computer near you, until the second play takes over next weekend. (The powers that be must have recorded this production, why not air it longer?)

But Main Street's virtual Miss Bennet is plain Jane to a farthing. As they advertise, this is a reading, no more or less. But Austen, as viewed through Gunderson and Melcon's neo-feminist eyes, needs her finery. She looks quite bare without the trimmings and ascots. There's not a green screen within miles, so no sumptuous backdrops or candlelit interiors. The actors, filmed separately of course, sit in front of sheets. This is cheesy and cheap. Our imagination is thoroughly overtaxed, enlivened only by the literate script and the delights to be gleaned from Lindsay Ehrhardt and Ricardo Horatio Hernandez-Morgan, as imperious Anne de Bourgh and socially inept Arthur de Bourgh.

This is middle daughter Mary's story really, the unwed bookish Bennet (Jessie Hyder), who finds her match and soulmate in the unimpressive, at first glance, Arthur. There are no surprises here, for we know from their introductory meeting that they are destined together. How could they not be? Like Mary, Arthur knows that the Christmas tree Lizzie has erected in the library is a “spruce, not a fir.” A match made in heaven.

The next installment, The Wickhams, brings us downstairs where the unwelcomed and bloodied Mr. Wickham, Lydia's wayward husband, barges into the copper-lined kitchen determined to see his bride. On stage the play was elegantly rendered, but if played against a bed sheet, bah humbug.

The Alley's holiday cash cow is, of course, Dickens' evergreen A Christmas Carol. Full-rigged with a large cast and clanging effects that can be heard outside the theater, Carol is too big to safely stage during COVID, so the Alley opted for a more manageable downscaled version by Doris Baisley.

With a Scrooge-like stage manager (David Rainey), eyes a-popping, at wit's end to stage Carol with no Scrooge and no Tim, the opening backstage minutes should be cut, which would allow more time for Dickens. For when the show finally begins, we get an unadulterated take on the classic, neatly pared to about 80 minutes.

While each actor is in his own home space, a hat, scarf, or umbrella serves Dickens well. Marley (Todd Waite) comes with his own ghostly up-light, while the Ghost of Christmas Present is a lively trio of Dylan Godwins enrobed in luxurious green sparkles. It's all cleverly done, and a tip of a top hat to director Brandon Weinbrenner for keeping this moving smoothly and for keeping the spirit of Dickens pure and simple.

But if you desire the most faithful rendition of all, turn to Classical Theater Company's podcast-like production of A Christmas Carol, directed by Philip Hays, and adapted by John Johnston and Matthew Keenan. This is a true radio play using atmospheric etchings and sound effects to flesh out the telling. It pays tribute to Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre of the Air from the golden days of broadcasting. Classical airs this reading in three parts, so there's lots of verbatim Dickens, which is a very good thing indeed. Six actors play all the roles, and in the first installment, James Belcher was as crotchety a Scrooge as you could want, and Chip Simmons a very haunted Marley. Jon Harvey's sound design is elegant, as are the stunning visualizations by Jeff McMorrough. The second installment is December 18, and the third occurs on December 23. Gather round ye ol' computer with a mug of hot cider and partake thoroughly. It's marvelous old-fashioned entertainment without a box or sheet in sight.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly continues through December 13) and The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberly  is scheduled for December 18-20 at Main Street Theater. Register for free at mainstreettheater.com

A Christmas Carol. Classical Theatre Company. December 18 and 23. YouTube.com/ctchouston

A Christmas Carol. Through December 27. Alley Theatre. Register for free at alleytheatre.org

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