Melissa Heller

“Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’” review: Dickens framed

Bag&Baggage Productions’ holiday comedy shows the writer creating his most famous story -- and getting upstaged by it

Charles Dickens was a rock star. On his reading tours in both England and America, fans crowded the venues to hear him read excerpts from his novels, cheered his speeches about social issues.

Charles Dickens was a clown. Yes, the author of The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield and the rest was also the most popular English language novelist of the 19th century, but he was also known to his friends as a total cutup who loved assuming comic personae and telling uproarious stories, most of which he made up himself.

Charles Dickens was also, therefore, an actor. He liked playing roles so much that he acted in his friends’ plays and even wrote his novels by acting out the various characters in his studio to capture their voices.

Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’ continues through December 23. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Such an inherently theatrical backstory proved irresistible to Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer, an inveterate historical researcher who in 2010 used Dickens’s life story (drawn from his diary and remembrances by family and contemporaries) to create his original comic take on the Victorian English author’s heartwarming Christmas classic. The revived Charles Dickens Writes “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 23 at The Vault theatre. (The information above comes from the company’s characteristically comprehensive study guide to the play)

Palmer’s adaptation — really an old story within a new play — has the added advantage of doubling the show’s appeal. It presents enough of Dickens’s original 1843 Scrooge story to entertain kids and others who are experiencing the holiday classic for the first time in a long time, or ever, while giving those who know the original by heart get an entirely new story around it. But although the combination makes for a generally entertaining holiday show, that framing narrative resembles one of those massive, Dickens-era Victorian picture frames, so ornate that they sometimes distract from the picture they surround. Even so, the show has so much going for it that it makes an easy holiday recommendation.

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‘Farndale’ review: slight drag

Bag&Baggage Productions' cross-dressed Brit-com theater spoof offers low humor in high heels

The show begins before the show begins. As the audience gradually trickles in from the lobby and bar, a dumpy, worried looking, Chaplin-esque figure wanders the spare set, making adjustments to the chairs, side table, and other props. While audience members take their seats, some chatting with each other in the aisles, some don’t even notice a molding suddenly falling off a wall. The beleaguered little prop man frowns, and with help from some unwitting audience members, undertakes repairs. Then a rather ample — and amply bewigged and be-pearled dowager — appears, loudly handing out programs.

Norman Wilson, Patrick Spike, and Jeremy Sloan play Thelma Greenwood, Phoebe Reece, and Merdeces Blower in Bag&Baggage’s produc on of The Farndale Avenue… Murder at Checkmate Manor. Photo: Casey Campbell.

Welcome to Bag&Baggage Productions’ The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Murder at Checkmate Manor, the farce-within-a-farce shambling and stumbling across the stage through October at Hillsburg’s, er, Hillsboro’s The Vault. Before the evening is done, audiences will suffer through faux French, egregious wordplay, spoonerisms, malfunctioning props, dysfunctional malaprops, blown cues, stilted acting, overacting, wandering facial hair makeup, spotlight hogging, backstage cattiness, a failed fashion show, karaoke, an invisible canine, cheesy strobe effects, and a not entirely Thrilling Michael Jackson flashback.

I hasten to add that the parade of ludicrous ineptitude is entirely intentional on Bag&Baggage’s part. One in a series of ten popular 1970s farces perpetrated by the British team of Walter Zerlin Jr. and David McGillivray that spoof earnest but hopelessly incompetent amateur theater companies, Farndale is a play that tries, and alas only occasionally succeeds, in making good comedy out of deliberately bad theater.

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