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Humbug uncontrolled 

p>To spice up the holidays, Shipping Dock Theatre openedlast weekend in its new location at Visual Studies Workshop with an anti-Christmas Carol. Make that an Aunty Christmas Carol. It's called (take a breath!) The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of A Christmas Carol,and, in deference to Dickens, it requires every one of those qualifiers.

            I'm a stickler for mentioning the names of a show's creators (and they're listed below), but no special credit for creativity goes to the folks responsible for this script (and several other "Farndale Townswomen's Productions" that trash classics). The plot, basically a blueprint for farcical carrying-on, presents a rural English group of stagestruck women who put on plays in hopes of rising to a level of mere incompetence.

            They are playing their own version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol with many substitutes for their intended cast, technical staff, and equipment. The mysteriously unavailable man who was to have played Ebeneezer Scrooge, for instance, has been replaced at the last minute by an unwilling woman. Bob Cratchit and many other roles are portrayed by a hopelessly infirm woman who suffers various physical attacks during the performance.

            And Phoebe Reece --- the Farndale director, show's narrator, and all-around boss --- not only performs roles as varied as Tiny Tim, Fred's Wife, and The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, but also harangues the audience, interrupts most scenes with her personal comments, passes out candies, and plays the piano to lead us all in singing carols. Phoebe may be the most maddening character in dramatic literature.

            The one dim-witted male in the Farndale Avenue players, a page-turner named Gordon Pugh, is enlisted to move heavy scenery and props and to play a few of the key male roles in the show as well as Mrs. Cratchit. He likes to play pranks and annoy the women during their performance, not caring that he's onstage in front of an audience.

            Shipping Dock's new locale is bright and attractive. Its stage is no better equipped than their former spaces, but it's in larger and nicer digs, with easy parking, situated in the heart of Rochester's arts community. Unfortunately, their efforts to move in on short notice may have taken time and care from rehearsals for this entertainment, which looked pretty rough on opening night.

            A setup as disordered as the Farndale Women's performances actually requires very tight control and whiz-by pacing to avoid any semblance of reality and to leave no time for serious judgment. If the performances start to seem actually inept or the interruptions get truly annoying, the game is lost. This production is cast entirely with familiar, accomplished players who all have their amusing moments, but it did drag on and get leaden on opening night. P. Gibson Ralph's hilariously awful set pieces got laughs, but some of their awkward moving onstage and off was for real.

            And though Gale Werner was very funny indeed when playing Phoebe Reece in a Shipping Dock production of this same play many years ago, this time Phoebe's endless interruptions and scene-spoiling demands often got tedious. Instead of laughing, I wanted to tell her to just get on with it.

            I'm willing to bet that those problems will go away by this weekend. When performances pull together and start to zip along, Werner will probably get the laughs that she did before, and her Phoebe will seem amusingly ditzy, not realistically intrusive.

            The one scene that deservedly got laughs was the early Scrooge-Marly confrontation in Scrooge's bedroom. Standing behind a ridiculous, two-dimensional, vertical bed, with her head protruding through a cut-out hole in the pillow, Kerry Young plays deadpan but exasperated Thelma (who is playing Scrooge), while Jerry Jones' manic Gordon argues over lines and their meanings instead of playing Marly's sinister warning. Young and Jones' timing was dead-on; Until it was interrupted, the scene was a model of how the rest of the production should have worked, and will.

            Maureen Mines as Felicity has to do yeoman service running all over the stage in a variety of getups and behaviors. And Maria Scipione endures constant indignities as poor Mercedes, whose Bob Cratchit and boys' and women's roles all seem to lead to painful accidents that leave her kicking and groaning on the floor. Complaining but cheerful, Mercedes is also too handicapped to get anything done or said onstage until so late that it interrupts subsequent dialogue.

            Nothing is silent these nights in Shipping Dock's Christmas show. Nothing is calm. No character is entirely bright. And there's certainly no heavenly peace. But the turmoil may provide theatrical insulin for those sated with more sugary holiday fare.

The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of A Christmas Carol,by David McGillivray & Walter Zerlin Jr., directed by Barbara K. Biddy, plays at Shipping Dock Theatre, 31 Prince Street, Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through December 28. Tix: $20 to $22. Special performances on New Year's Eve, Wednesday, December 31, are at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org

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