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'Every Christmas Story Ever Told' Is A Gaudy Christmas Present

If you're getting bored with seeing "A Christmas Carol" every December, grab Tiny Tim, shout a lusty "Bah, humbug!", and hie ye to the Orlando Shakespeare Festival, where three talented actors are making mincemeat pie of Christmas traditions with a gaudy confection of a show that will have you laughing harder than spiked egg nog.

"Every Christmas Story Ever Told" expropriates material from sources as diverse as "It's A Beautiful Life" and those old Christmas specials on TV sponsored by Norelco and tosses them into a madcap blender that bubbles over with wry wit and shameless belly laughs. As the play itself says, it's "Xmas Xtreme."

The Orlando Shakespeare Festival has been making something of a cottage industry of producing small-scale riffs on traditional Christmas-time theatrical fare, with each Chirstmas season bringing yet another variation on the theme. Last year it was the superb and superbly funny "The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge" and I didn't they'd be able to top it. But top it they did.

The new show plays cleverly on the time-honored tradition, observed by many regional theaters, of producing "A Christmas Carol" year after year. The theaters have their reasons ("We're going broke putting on Shakespeare.") and so do the actors ("I'm only doing it for the insurance."). But enough is enough and two of the three actors in what starts out as a pared-down version of the Dickens classic stage a mutiny and, in an effort to breathe new life into an old tradition, attempt to tell, yes, "Every Christmas Story Ever Told" in the space of 90 minutes.

The plot, if such it can be called, defies summary, but it casts it's net far and wide, wide enough to pay passing homage to Channukah ("It bears similarities to other Jewish festivals: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat!") and Kwanzaa ("The best part of Kwanzaa is that you'll never see a special called 'A Very Brady Kwanzaa'.") Along the way, we are provided with factoids about Christmas traditions in far off lands, some of which are factual, some of which are fanciful, and all of which are bizarre.

But the major focus is on capsule retellings of famous Christmas tales, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer. Unfortunately, we learn that Rudolph is still protected by copyright, so we are treated to a "non-indictable" tale of Gustav the Green-Nosed Rein-Goat, who teams up with a misfit elf who wants to get out of the toy business and become a dentist. The Grinch is there, too, and the actual Christmas story makes a brief appearance in an unwonted quiet moment that is surprisingly touching.

By the intermission the set is a disaster area and the cast sends us out into the lobby to observe yet another Christmas tradition -- buying stuff.

The second act is somewhat more coherent than the first because the one hold out in the cast has been promised that they will do "A Christmas Carol" after all. But it seems they've overlooked "It's a Beautiful Life," so Marley morphs into Clarence, Angel Third Class, and the show once again spins giddily off the tracks.

I can't pretend this is high art. Some of the humor is downright shameless, but that doesn't make any less funny. The crowd I saw it with leapt to its collective feet to give the show a well-deserved standing ovation.

The show is the brainchild of Michael Carleton, John Alvarez, and Jim Fitzgerald who don't get a bio in the program, an oversight I correct with this link. The three actors, all OSF stalwarts, are Eric Hissom, Philip Nolen, and Timothy Williams, who do get bios, which are a hoot to read. All of them are very, very good, but I must reserve special mention for Nolen who is quite obviously in close touch with his inner child. Jim Helsinger, OSF's artistic director, has directed with aplomb and the Festival's costumers and prop department have outdone themselves.

One word of warning: Don't sit in the first two rows, unless you don't mind being made sport of in front of a packed theater.

"Every Christmas Story Ever Told" plays through December 24, 2005 at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival in Orlando's Loch Haven Park.

Tickets are $25 - $35.

Box office: 407-447-1700, ext. 1

Or order online.

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