"SUCH DININGS, such dancings, such blind-man's-bluffings, such theater-goings, such kissings-out of old years, such kissings-in of new ones . . . "
Christmas is upon us, dragging sacks of jollification and crabbiness, juniper berries and tales of children freezing to death in doorways.
Nowhere are the twin sentiments of joy and humbuggery expressed with more savage charm than in "A Christmas Carol," one of several ghoulish holiday stories by Charles Dickens written to terrorize his brethren into helping the indigent of London.
The holiday spook story was very popular in Dickens' day. The great man himself wrote several and hundreds of others are still around, passed down from the pagan Norse and carried into our own literary tradition on the darling little wings of the angel of death.
Every year, two or three of them are adapted for stage production on the Niagara Frontier and all of these are "A Christmas Carol." This year there are five of them, including a couple that have been banging into one another for months.
Considering that such Victorian gems as "Castle Dismal" and "Their Dear Little Ghost," featuring the spirit of a murdered child, are available to be turned into playlets anon, why not some variety? If it must be Dickens, why not "The Chimes"? Afraid of a few bell goblins?
Our streets are overrun with hobbled Cratchits and old curs with their jaws tied shut. You can catch them at Buffalo's Alleyway and Studio Arena Theatres; the aptly named Ghostlight Theatre Company in North Tonawanda's Riviera Theater; the Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne and Niagara Falls and for the fifth time at Fredonia State College.
How are we to select from among so many Scrooges, so much fog and so many boney fingers-of-death stuck straight into our fleshy, selfish faces?
Geography will play a role in the decision, certainly. The weather, too, may mitigate against a Ski-doo ride along the lakefront. And some people simply insist upon a "seasoned" Scrooge, a concept piece, or a lot of flies on Marley.
God bless us, every one! What we need is -- A GUIDE TO SCROOGE-O-RAMAS! And here it is.
Cheapest seats: The Ghostlight ($4 to $5).
Dearest seats: Studio Arena at $14 to $28.
Earliest opening: Studio Arena, Nov. 27; latest opening: the Ghostlight, Dec. 13.
Longest run: Studio Arena, 29 performances through Dec. 31; shortest run: the Ghostlight, five performances through Dec. 16.
Matinees: All have them.
Best services to the hearing-impaired: Studio Arena with one signed performance and special equipment to enhance sound.
Most expensive production: It's got to be the Studio Arena.
Most experienced Scrooge: Brian Coatsworth at the Showtime Festival, who's humbugged through 14 different productions, two of them this year alone.
Newest Scrooge: Fredonia State's Robert Schlick and the Alleyway's Tim Denesha, each on his first run as the "scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner."
Show with most females playing Tiny Tim: Studio Arena (two)
Most experienced adapter: Neal Radice, who has adapted and re-adapted eight productions in as many years for the Alleyway. He's on a roll.
Adapter who sounds most English: Blake Heathcote, Showtime Festival Theatre.
Most liberties taken with Dickens' original: Amlin Gray's adaptation for the Studio Arena.
Most experienced set: Fredonia's elaborate set is 10 years old and about to be retired.
Fawnciest costumes: Showboat Festival (fur-lined capes, pearl-handled canes), Fredonia State and the Studio Arena.
Deliberately not the fawnciest costumes: The Alleyway, which eschews the "charged-up, the storybook, inflated size and color scheme." Dickens would like that.
Best special effects: Everybody has fog. The Ghostlight has pop-up ghosts and a "special effects" tombstone. The Alleyway claims a new spook treatment and elaborate lighting system; the Studio Arena's sound design is top-notch and quite effective.
Oddest set: The Ghostlight's will use floating platforms throughout the theater and screens painted like Victorian postcards that spawn living characters.
Most minimalist set: The Showboat Festival, which has no built set at all. The atmosphere is produced by a creepy concoction of fog, candlelight and suggestion.
Revolving sets: Fredonia State and Studio Arena.
Most color-coordinated production: The Ghostlight, where set and costume colors correspond to the decor of the Riviera, the Alice Longworth of area playhouses.
Best take on Dickens: The Showboat production is a verbatim retelling of the original.
Newest costumes: The Showboat.
Most la-di-da set: Studio Arena, with its looming buildings and scenes that float all over the stage.
Most challenged productions: The Alleyway's, which after an eight-year tradition of sellouts, finds itself up against the flashy wham-o-rama at the Studio Arena around the corner; and the Showboat Festival Theatre, whose 1989 run was closed by a killer snowstorm at about this time last year and had to put this one together in record time because of cast commitments.
Production Dickens would most likely attend: The Alleyway, Fredonia State and the Showboat Festival for strict adherence to what he wrote in the first place; the Ghostlight for its generosity of spirit (all proceeds go to the renovation of the Riviera) and the Studio Arena for its high quality of urchin and a fine Scrooge and Christmas Present.
Carolers: You can't escape them, although the Showboat Festival is using Victorian music like "Barbara Allen," which is as charming and romantically ghoulish as the play itself.
Narrator/No Narrator (a measure of authenticity since the original story has one, leaving him out necessitates prologues, epilogues and nervy "fresh" dialogue): Fredonia State and Alleyway have narrators; Studio Arena, Showboat and Ghostlight have no narrators.
Tallest Christmas Future: The Studio Arena and the Ghostlight tie at about 12 feet.
Christmas Future with the longest arms: The Studio Arena. They nearly drag on the floor.
Most elfin Christmas Past: Fredonia State.
Longest production: Studio Arena and the Ghostlight, at two hours with intermission.
Largest cast: Fredonia State, 42 actors in 45 roles.
Smallest cast: Alleyway, with eight adults and two children in about 30 roles.
Best turnout: The Alleyway is nearly always sold out; Fredonia traditionally plays to 90 percent capacity; the Showboat Festival is back by popular demand; the Ghostlight says it has a "decent" turnout but has 1,200 seats to fill; and the Studio Arena has a large subscription and can't lose.