Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol gets a contemporary gay spin—and quite a good one at that—in Joe Godfrey’s A Queer Carol, now getting its Southern California Premiere at Santa Ana’s Theatre Out.

Ebenezer “Ben” Scrooge (Christopher Peduzzi) is now the owner of Manhattan’s Scrooge & Marley Interior Design, where his assistant Robert Cratchit (Tito Ortiz) toils without health benefits (or much of a salary). Fred (Richard DeVicariis), Scrooge’s nephew in the original, here becomes a fabric salesman who invites Ben to his annual Christmas bash, a yearly celebration featuring “fruitcake and friends. Of course most of the friends are fruitcakes.” As in Dickens’ tale, a charity worker (Andrew Kelley) stops by on Christmas Eve, this time as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. (“Perhaps you’ve attended one of their fund-raising events? ‘Broadway Bares?’”) Not surprisingly, Ben Scrooge sees no need to donate as long as there are hospices and city shelters, and if the ill would rather die than spend Christmas in a shelter, then “let them do it and decrease the surplus population.” Just as was true for nineteenth century Ebenezer, modern day Ben considers Christmas and everything surrounding it “Humbug.” (“It’s an archaic word he picked up somewhere.”) As for Robert’s invitation to join him and his HIV-positive lover Tim (Justin Scott Eaton) for Christmas dinner, Scrooge retorts in Dickens’ own words, “You celebrate Christmas in your own way, and I shall in mine.”

As suggested by the above, Godfrey’s Queer Carol manages to be faithful in spirit, intent, and even in dialog to Dickens’ Christmas Carol, but with a considerably gayer sensibility:

•Scrooge: If I had my way, every idiot running around wishing “Merry Christmas” to people they don’t even know should be drowned in egg nog and whipped with branches of holly!
•Cratchit: Sounds pretty kinky.

Not surprisingly, Ben Scrooge is visited by a quartet of spirits, beginning with the ghost of his former partner (and in this case former lover as well) Jacob Marley né Markowitz (Christopher Diehl), who still wears “the chains I forged in life, lusting after money, wallowing in an orgy of pleasures.” (Since this is a Queer Carol, the chains Jake Marley wears reflect his predilection for things S&M.)

Playwright Godfrey salutes gay diva worship by casting Marilyn Monroe (Andrea Dennison-Laufer) as the ghost of Christmas Past, whose lines are peppered with Monroe movie titles. (“Every seven years I get ‘this itch.’” “We’re going to Niagara! Just kidding.” “We’re going to do something really cool. Of course, ‘some like it hot!’”) Marilyn takes Scrooge back to his hellish 1950s childhood where Ben observes his boorish father berating his cookie-cutter wife for turning their son “into a goddamn fairy” and where Ben’s classmates bully him with taunts of “suck my ‘weezer’” and “you’re ‘fairy nice.’” Later, aspiring designer Ben finds work at Fezziwig Fabrics, run by the gayest goose in town, Old Fezziwig himself (DiVicariis). (“Fantabulous! Just call me Christine Kringle!”)

At one of Fezziwig’s Christmas bashes, twenty-one-year-old Ben meets out-and-proud Jake Markowitz, and the two become lovers, though their personal relationship suffers from Ben’s desire to remain closeted and Jake’s inability to say “I love you.” Ben later convinces Jake to change his family name from Markowitz to the more WASPish Marley, the better to take over a financially troubled Fezziwig Fabrics, loyalty be damned. Sadly, this being the 1970s/80s, Jake is soon stricken with AIDS.

When the clock strikes two, the ghost of Christmas Present makes her entrance as an outrageously flamboyant Drag Queen (Jeffery G. Rockey), taking Ben to the East Village flat where Robert and Tim manage to survive on love, the friendship of lesbian couple Carol and Maria (Lori Kelley and Dennison-Laufer), and not much else.

As for Christmas Future, the years to come do not bode any better for Ben Scrooge than they did for Dickens’ Ebenezer—that is, of course, unless Ben changes his greedy, selfish ways. (Not much doubt about what he determines to do once given a second chance on Christmas morning.)

Godfrey’s adaptation is a mostly successful one, particularly in the talented hands of the cast and crew at Theatre Out. David C. Carnevale directs with panache, aided by Ivan Janer’s versatile scenic design, Joy Bice’s effective lighting (the introduction of Marley’s ghost is a particularly spooky treat), Joey Baital’s bevy of colorful, imaginative costumes, and David Chorley’s excellent sound design.

Perduzzi makes for a fine Scrooge, his icy cold grumpiness gradually thawing as the play progresses. Eaton does wonderful work in the dual role of Young Scrooge and Tim, with young Ben’s childhood suffering played touchingly real. Ortiz is very good indeed as Robert Cratchit, proving his versatility after a much sissier role in last summer’s Southern Baptist Sissies. Sissies director Diehl wears his actor’s hat here, making for a very real, sympathetic Jake Marley. The Kelleys (spouses in real life) do terrific work in multiple roles, she as Ben’s mother, as Jake’s nurse, as lesbian Carol, and as fund-raiser Jean, he as fundraiser Nick, as Ben’s monstrous father, as Fred’s friend Noel, and as the “fence” who buys up some of Scrooge’s belongings from his housekeeper. DeVicariis creates three very different characters, with special snaps for his oh-so gay Fezziwig and oh-so loutish Russian boozer Pytor. As for the dragolicious ghost of Christmas Present, Rockey makes her big-big-bigger than life and utterly fabulous. Finally, Theatre Out treasure Dennison-Laufer proves herself the evening’s most larcenous scene-stealer, channeling Marilyn to perfection, making for a sweet, sincere Svetlana, and getting laughs every single time Dominican Maria opens her sassy Latina mouth.

Godfrey’s script is not a perfect one. Some of his campier jokes fizzle, young Scrooge’s switch from sweet to cold-hearted happens without any real transition, and the “contemporary” setting (the play was first workshopped in 1999) already seems a tad dated with terms like “lover” and references to a still living Kitty Carlisle. Still, it is quite a good adaptation, and one that audiences are likely to greet with considerable cheer (and cheers).

Now completing its second full season of LGBT theater in Santa Ana, Theatre Out has quickly established itself as an Orange County gem. A Queer Carol ends the year (one highlighted by its musical hits Tick, Tick… Boom, Zanna, Don’t, and Boys Will Be Boys) on a high note, with 2011 showing great promise—and a greater emphasis on (forgive the term) straight plays. I for one don’t plan on missing any of them, and neither should any gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender theater lover worth his or her rainbow-colored Christmas lights.

Theatre Out, The Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.
–Steven Stanley
December 10, 2010
Photos: Jason M. Hammond

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