Twist Your Dickens: notes from opening night

ArtsWatch reviews the full-of-surprises Holiday sketch spoof...without giving too much away.

If you’re a subscriber to Portland Center Stage, a follower of Portland theater, or even just an extreme Christmas enthusiast, you’ve probably become at least passingly curious about what “Twist Your Dickens” does to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”…and whether or not you’ll approve.

Well, first off, don’t expect Ye Olde Morality Play. A brainchild of Chicago’s world-famous improv brand The Second City, “Twist” uses the Dickens narrative as a very loose framework, but between the familiar Victorian hauntings, it also spoofs as many other Christmas classics as it can. Revealing them all would spoil a lot of the show’s best gags; suffice to say that no hallmark of yuletide culture is safe from an irreverent sendup. Christmas movie characters are caricatured, Christmas cartoons are lampooned, and even the Holy Bible takes a good comedic thumping. Techniques also vary, from puppetry to pratfalls to exaggerated costumes to audience involvement.

The "Twist Your Dickens' gang/Patrick Weishampel

The “Twist Your Dickens’ gang/Patrick Weishampel

Opening Night Surprises

Because the show is partly improv, some things happen only once — so here are a a few one-time gags from opening night:

  • When Scrooge’s love interest, Belle, broke off their affair, the audience was prompted to describe Belle’s new beau. They dubbed him a stripper who enjoyed underwater basketweaving and had a bad habit of picking his nose. John San Nicholas thought fast, digging a finger into his nostril, presenting Belle with a basket he cautioned was “still wet,” and fanning out a stack of $1 bills, exclaiming, “We’re gonna have FUN TONIGHT!”
  • After butchering the lyrics to several classic Christmas tunes, lounge singer “Ruby Santini” asked for requests. “Frosty the Cold Handed Proctologist!” someone creatively volunteered. Bravely, Beth Melewski crooned a new classic, even cautioning, “Watch where he puts that carrot.”
  • As ArtsWatch reported in News & Notes, opening night’s surprise guest was Sasha Roiz from “Grimm,” towering as tall as the doorframe as he walked on set. Roiz only explained his presence as a fulfillment of “community service.”

The Cast

Replete with costume and character changes and quick transitions, “Twist” would be impossible without an agile and versatile cast. Scrooge is rarely the straight man in “Carol,” but Craig Cackowski manages it here, holding gravitas with Cratchit (Nicholas Kessler) through lines like “Now, back to my usury” and facing down the crackup antics of, respectively, a dippy Marley (San Nicolas,) an ’80s valley boy Ghost of Christmas Past (Sam Dinkowitz), a stoner Present (Beth Melewski), and a prop comic Future (uncredited).

Dinkowitz, a longtime Post5 member and gifted movement/fight coordinator, makes the Gerding stage and even the aisles his playground, hamming up his onstage costume changes, ’80s dancing, and various other shenanigans. Melewski, the odd woman out, stands in on several male roles and delivers a few choice lesbian jokes. Lauren Modica, last seen commanding dual male and female roles in Portand Actors Ensemble’s summer version of “Cymbeline,” takes this larger stage with gusto. One guesses her patience for ingenue roles has been tested by her small stature; hence, she plays children with a hilariously haughty disdain, boldly challenging audience assumptions of cuteness.

Chantal DeGroat takes the opposite approach, comically exaggerating her characters’ helplessness and innocence. As Tiny Tim, she beams unwittingly at the audience while squeaking across the stage in agonizing one-inch strides. (“I’ll come to YOU,” swoops Cratchit, saving the day.) San Nicolas, ever a character, navigates walk-0ns, pop-ins, and non-sequiters with ingenious flair. The ensemble is so light on its feet, you almost don’t notice how much each actor has to do.

Laying aside Dickensian life lessons in favor of a good time, “Twist” comes at humor from so many angles, with such irreverence and zeal, your amusement is practically guaranteed.

Twist Your Dickens continues at PCS through December 22.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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