A gruff, aging man sits alone in front of his television on Christmas Eve. He's too cheap to pay for premium channels, so he flips irritably through the usual offerings: It's a Wonderful Life. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Humbug, all of it.
The joke is that this man is a 21st-century version of Ebenezer Scrooge, and he inhabits one of the hoariest Christmas tales of all: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Yet we find this "Ben" Scrooge not in Victorian England, but in contemporary America. He's a bitter, self-loathing interior designer. He's gay. And so is nearly every other character in Joe Godfrey's A Queer Carol, being presented by the Alternative Theatre Company.
Godfrey's treatment of the Dickens story doesn't actually stray too far from the original. True, it's updated and queered, but it remains a serious-minded account of how one man's soul gradually withers but is revived by ghostly visitations on Christmas Eve.
The primary differences between the original and Godfrey's version are that Tiny Tim is not Bob Cratchit's crippled son; he's his gay lover being treated for AIDS. Also, Jacob Marley is not merely Scrooge's deceased business partner; he's Scrooge's philandering ex-lover. Oh, and the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present are drag queens, the former bearing an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Monroe.
What's surprising about the Alternative Theatre Company's production, directed by Joe Marshall, is how heartfelt and direct most of it is. The camp quotient is amazingly low. For example, when the ghost of Jacob Marley appears, decked out in chains, you figure he'll also be in full S&M gear (especially considering some hints dropped about his tastes later in the show). But Marshall, as both director and as Marley, plays it fairly straight, if you'll pardon the expression.
Some scenes are a bit rocky, varying with the abilities of whatever actors are on stage at the time, but the best parts are the flashbacks following the relationship between Marley (Marshall) and young Scrooge (Steve Wood). The acting is easy and full of natural affection (and natural interpersonal tension) as a solid little relationship drama unfolds. This turns out not to be a mere send-up of a too-familiar tale.
Kenton Jones is also quite fine as Bob Cratchit, tremendously likable but no milquetoast. Jon T. Benda is another cast standout. Initially, one has the feeling that his first character, as written, should be a bit swishier than Benda plays him. Eventually, though, you realize he's been keeping much in reserve for another, more flamboyant figure later in the play, and in between, he's perfectly believable as young Ben Scrooge's abusive father.
Not that we're supposed to take all of this entirely seriously. In particular, the Christmas ghosts (Chadwick Collins and Ajia Simone) are a hoot. And there's plenty of gay badinage, as well as an abundance of Tucson references--given which, it was a mistake to retain a reference to Scrooge's townhouse being built in the Federal style, which predates anything in Tucson. So much for all gay men having an encyclopedic knowledge of design; I mean, just think about how our editor dresses.
Speaking of design, the look and certain technical elements of this production can be a bit rudimentary and don't always sync up, but the facilities are limited; the grandly named Hollywood Cabaret Theater, is, after all, carved out of a corner of the tastefully redecorated bar at the Arizona Plaza Hotel just north of the curve on Oracle Road.
Uneven though the production may be, it's fresh and sincere, and there's plenty to like about it. And it's not just for the gay community; judging from the way people were paired off, there seemed to be a strong straight contingent in the opening-night audience, and I trust they weren't just the families of the actors. Or maybe they were, if you take to heart the story's message that we're all family, after all.