The Unicorn Inspects Christmas

With the holiday season starting earlier and earlier every year, no one can be blamed for running into Christmas fatigue. Some people are tired of Christmas by Thanksgiving. And one of the most ubiquitous sights this time of year is the plague of A Christmas Carol. From stage versions to movie versions to Scrooge references in casual conversation, nobody escapes the annual ghost story.

Not to be left out, the Unicorn jumps into the fray with its take on the classic tale of Christmas spirit. But it’s not like any version you’ve seen before.

Inspecting Carol is about a small theater company preparing the annual production of A Christmas Carol. They are all pretty bored with it, but it’s the audience-pleaser that helps them pay their bills. Then they discover that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which gives them grants to help them stay open, is holding the money back until they send someone to see the work that the theater is doing, to see whether they deserve the money.

When an unknown actor shows up to audition for the director, it sets off a very paranoid rehearsal time. The show careens into a farce of mistaken identity, egos gone amuck, and physical comedy that will not soon be forgotten.

The play was written 21 years ago, when there was a lot of discussion about the role of the NEA in the arts world. There are places where the script feels a little dated, although this production does try to update it when possible. But the show works everywhere it needs to. It is a nice twist on the story that so many of us know so well. By interweaving the actual story with a story about the difficulties of telling that story, we get a fresh, inside look at a treasured tradition.

The large cast is full of energy, and everyone does well with their parts. There are many great performances in this show. Jessica Biernaki Jensen is very believable as the cranky, long-suffering stage manager. Cathy Barnett plays the director, Zorah, with an overdramatic flair that makes her fun to watch. John Rensenhouse is splendid as the actor who plays Scrooge, whose strong ego covers a real brittle sensitivity.

The two best performances, however, are Phil Fiorini and Patrick Du Laney. Fiorini plays the actor who plays Cratchit, and he is hilarious as the disgruntled actor with a chip on his shoulder and a crush on the director. Du Laney is awesome as the new actor Wayne, a total talentless schmuck who is mistaken for the NEA inspector and buys into the insincere flattery heaped upon him by the rest of the cast.

If you are one of the few people who doesn’t know the story of A Christmas Carol, some of the cleverness will be lost on you. But if you do know the story, this is an enjoyable night out. There’s nothing deep or thoughtful here. It’s a simple, energetic, frothy tale that will fill you with the holiday spirit in a way that you haven’t seen before.

Inspecting Carol runs through Dec. 23 at the Unicorn Theatre. Tickets are available at www.unicorntheatre.org, 816-531-7529, Ext.10, or at the box office, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo.

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