“Inspecting Carol,” the backstage comedy that opened last night at the Hilberry Theatre, is a festive holiday play, to be sure. It’s the story of a small professional theatre company struggling to stage its annual production of “A Christmas Carol.” The script, created by well-known director Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theatre, may have a Christmas theme, but it feels more like a Valentine to the theatre community. That’s a good thing, because despite the angst and the insurmountable odds, there is a genuine fondness for the theatre that is at the root of what makes this so much fun.
The play is directed by theatre veteran and head of Wayne State’s MFA Acting program Lavinia Hart, who understands as well as anyone the plight of so many theatre companies. In fact, with connections to so many professional area troupes, she infuses this production with a few specific references to other companies and artistic directors. It’s meta – in the best way possible – and has the feel of life imitating art imitating life.
The story of “Inspecting Carol” is the story of every theatre – in which the real “drama” involves stretching the budget, winning the grant, appeasing the patrons, and keeping the company from killing each other. And of course, there’s that nagging little dream that pulls most theatre people into the biz – the primal urge to create art that engages people, reveals some truth, and maybe even changes lives in profound ways.
In “Inspecting Carol,” the members of the Soapbox Playhouse have kept it together for 13 years – not without some artistic compromises. But this year, Christmas finds them facing a dire financial crisis. Patronage has fallen off, and the annual production of “A Christmas Carol” is their only reliable money maker. But even this sure bet has its challenges. The actor who has traditionally played all three ghosts has in fact become a ghost. The actor who plays Scrooge (Michael Phillip Thomas as Larry Vauxhall) is determined to interject modern interpretations about oppressed third-world countries into the narrative. The stressed out, desperate director (Mary Sansone as Zorah Bloch) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The Stage Manager (Antonia LaChé as M.J. McMann) is the long-suffering realist in the troupe and the only one focused on keeping things running on schedule and as scripted. And then there’s Tiny Tim (Wesley Cady as Luther) who has had a growth spurt and is almost as tall as Scrooge himself.
In addition, the character actors have become true “characters” – who flaunt their eccentricities and pet neuroses. It all rings true in an over-the-top, uber-theatrical sort of way that is ultimately very satisfying. Devri Chism, Kyle Mitchell Johnson, James Kern, Brandon A. Wright, Michael Manocchio, and Ernest Bentley round out the Soapbox Playhouse company.
The Business Manager (Cody Robison) explains to Zorah that everything depends on keeping their NEA grant funding to pay the bills. But that has been put on hold pending a review of the theatre by an NEA inspector. When an accountant-turned-actor shows up to audition for the play, everyone jumps to the wrong conclusion. The newbie (Nick Stockwell as Wayne Wellacre), is filled with the teachings of Joseph Campbell and is determined to follow his bliss – and drag everyone along with him. Assuming that this sincere but hapless man is an undercover spy from the NEA, the troupe panders to his whims, embraces his bad ideas, backstabs other members of the company, and pushes the play to the brink of disaster. And that, of course, is when the real NEA inspector shows up (Breayre Tender). Zaniness ensues.
Lavinia Hart notes that, “important universal questions come to light in vivid relief when we witness the plight and perils of those brave souls who choose to make their living in the theatre. What happens when arts organizations lose financial subsidies? Can artistic vision and sense of mission truly make a difference in the lives of our audience members? How can we make the world a better place? From Charles Dickens’ London to today’s headlines – we all need to wrestle with these questions and find our own path to solutions.”
Adding to the entertainment value of this light-hearted, festive fare, is a truly clever scenic design by Fred Florkowski. The conceit with “Inspecting Carol” is that this annual production repurposes basic props and scenic flats year after year. So when set pieces begin to fail, as the gods of comedy demand they must, the trouble starts slowly, snowballs quickly and serves up drastic consequences. The production team also includes: Ryan P. Jones (Stage Manager), Sarah Drum (Assistant Stage Manager), Neal Warner (Music Director), Mary Leyendecker (Costume Designer), Natalie Colony (Lighting Designer), Thomas Libertiny (Sound Designer), Brian Dambacher (Technical Director), Michael Sabourin (Properties Master), Amos Woodard (Master Electrician), Wayne David Parker (Fight Choreographer), Michael J. Barnes (Dialect Coach), Breayre Tender (Choreographer) and JP Hitesman (Publicist).
“Inspecting Carol” runs at the Hilberry Theatre through December 20, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and matinees on Wednesday, December 9 at 2 p.m., Saturday December 5 and 19 at 2 p.m., and Sunday, December 20 at 3 p.m. To purchase tickets or for more information about the Hilberry, Bonstelle, Studio, or Allesee Dance theatres, call (313) 577-2972 or visit the theatre website. The Hilberry is located on the campus of Wayne State University at 4743 Cass Ave. in Detroit.