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Phoenix Theatre’s “Twist Your Dickens” Gets Fresh with Audiences

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Performing Arts Issue: December 2016
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Courtesy Reg Madison Photography

Who knew Scrooge was such a great dancer?

As the curmudgeonly character from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” actor Robert Kolby Harper does the running man, the cabbage patch, the dab, and even twerks. It’s hilarious – as it’s meant to be in this shake-and-bake parody of the classic from improv comedy enterprise Second City – but it’s also impressive, because the dude has some seriously sweet moves.

Phoenix Theatre’s production of “Twist Your Dickens” is quite twisted indeed – some of the scenes interspersed throughout this strange retelling of “A Christmas Carol” seemed from way out of time and space, though perhaps that’s apropos for a show that includes ghosts of the past (a guy in MC Hammer pants with a blonde mullet), present (a drunken party girl) and future (a Grim Reaper-like figure) taking Scrooge on an odd odyssey. There are many pop culture references. The “Christmas past” portion asks the audience to shout out a previous decade, and then the actors hilariously act out Christmas morning in that particular era, with decade-appropriate pajamas, gifts, and holiday dinner recipe references. There are myriad more modern wrinkles, including on potentially contentious things like current politics and religion, but there were no gasps or boos from the audience. Perhaps they expected a certain amount of “political incorrectness” – after all, this was written by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, part of the team of writers for “The Colbert Report.”

The show employs a talented ensemble cast of actors that each play multiple roles in a sort of sketch comedy format that improvs with audience shout-out suggestions – which is how you wind up with things like a proctologist who golfs and has a nasty habit of pole dancing, and a lounge singer belting out an impromptu ballad about candy canes (and less innocent things that start with the letter C).
Some of the sketches shoehorned into the adrift-in-time narrative -- like a cheeky Victorian law firm advertisement and a reenactment of Linus’ gospel speech from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in which Linus acts like a fired-up Southern preacher with own TV show – are like elbows to the arm of Dickens’ story, interrupting the pace of the play and, while eliciting laughs, coming off like inappropriately timed jokes.

But though it can be overly absurdist at times, “Twist Your Dickens” is a saucy and refreshing take on a tale that gets rebooted and faithfully retold every winter. This is not a faithful retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” and that’s exactly what makes it worth seeing. That, and Scrooge’s dance moves.

“Twist Your Dickens” at Phoenix Theatre
Through December 24
phoenixtheatre.com