BWW Reviews: TWIST YOUR DICKENS at Portland Center Stage Is a Wild Ride Through Your Favorite Holiday Tales

By: Dec. 01, 2014
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We've all seen A Christmas Carol a bunch of times, including sitcom parodies, sketch comedy takeoffs, and even TV commercials that have Scrooge discovering his love of, say, KFC or Miller Lite. Every theatre company does its version around this time of year; what's better for a nonprofit group than a story that doesn't require royalty checks? I've sat through my share, from R&B versions (where old Ebenezer finds jazz) to religious versions (where he finds God). The story still works, and if it's done right, you can't help smiling at it.

Twist Your Dickens has very little to do with any of that. It's two hours of sketch comedy using Dickens's tale as a very rough basic structure but going off in dozens of different directions, from parodies of classic holiday TV specials (A Charlie Brown Christmas gets banged around) to rewrites of familiar carols. There are spots for audience suggestions, as in any good improv show, and there are some groaningly bad lines. The show mocks every race, religion, and profession, and has a lot of fun at the habits and pretensions of we who live in Portland.

Of course, the show you see may be different from the show I saw, so I can't go too deeply into specifics here. A local celebrity helped introduce a sketch in the second half of the show, but I don't know if she'll be around for future performances or if someone else will fill her spot. Sketches that I saw might not be used the night you see the piece. I will just say that I had a fantastic time laughing, and sometimes I was ashamed of myself for laughing. This is definitely not a show to bring the kids to - some of the jokes were definitely rated R...for riotous. But also risky; Tiny Tim's infirmity is not only laughed at but enlarged upon, and when his friends show up for a slumber party it becomes an avalanche of disabilities.

The cast is impeccable. Craig Cackowski is Scrooge, and he serves as a sort of emcee for the evening, but he gets dragged into so many anachronistic situations that he gets to show off a variety of skills. Jaime Moyer reminded me of Melissa McCarthy (except that Moyer is a lot funnier), until she showed up to sing those hilariously (and extemporaneously) rewritten carols. Lauren Modica made a particularly cranky Mrs. Cratchit and also got a shot at Judy Garland's Dorothy, with zany results. Nicholas Kessler played Bob Cratchit with the right amount of fear, but had so many other characters in him that I just sat back and admired his verve.

The other three cast members are Portland veterans who I've seen in other, very different productions, and I was surprised at their skill at improv and jumping in and out of a variety of characters. Sam Dinkowitz, who generally gets intense dramatic roles, made a particularly obnoxious Ghost of Chirstmas Past, but he was especially hilarious as a pal of Tiny Tim's with a very intense problem. John San Nicolas, who's given great performances in two particularly drearly plays over the past year, had so many quick changes I sometimes expected to see him on stage opposite himself; he was wildly funny as Scrooge's nephew and as Linus, but showed a special flair for impersonation as the main character in a very familiar Christmas classic. And Chantal DeGroat - not two weeks removed from a darkly serious, brilliant performance in The Piano Lesson - rocked out in a parody of Sister Act (why? no idea), showed up with no eyes as Little Orphan Annie, and shuffled gleefully as Tiny Tim.

I can't say any more about Twist Your Dickens because I want you to discover its surprises as happily as I did. But I will make one recommendation: In the lobby of the theatre there is a booth where you are going to be asked to write your biggest misdeed on a piece of red or green paper. This may seem like an odd request, but trust me - you want to participate. Whatever you write on that paper might just end up being part of the show. The night I saw Twist Your Dickens, the funniest running gag arrived that way, and I wish I could shake the hand of the person who wrote it. And that's the great thing about improv.


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