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Christmas onstage: Let us count the ways

This year's holiday theater roundup, with cameos by Elf, Joan Crawford, and one or two Ebenezer Scrooges

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There was a time in living memory when winter holiday entertainment came in two semiofficial flavors: A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker. Well, ha! That's over. You can still get your dose of tradition at, say, Goodman Theatre and the Joffrey; other possibilities, meanwhile, have not only multiplied but atomized. If your inclinations run that way, you can now have your Dickens done in Klingon, silent-movie style, or with a craft-beer theme. Joan Crawford and even Satan have joined the pantheon of seasonal icons that formerly didn't go much beyond Ebenezer Scrooge and It's a Wonderful Life's George Bailey. Every storefront theater and sketch company has its cunning spin. I'd blame social media if I could only figure out how. Here are ten shows culled from the current tsunami. Others are in our listings already, and plenty more are coming. —Tony Adler

A Beer Carol You've got to hand it to Steve Mosqueda and Sean Benjamin. They've stayed true to their vision even at the risk of their livers. Their Drinking & Writing Theater is all about the creativity that flows from inebriation, and their shows are paeans to the alcoholic beverage. Especially beer. Even hallowed yuletide traditions get bent (as it were) to their intentions. First staged in 2011, A Beer Carol recasts Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol as the inspirational tale of Bud Miller, ruthless CEO of the Milweiser Beer Company, whose piss-purveying ways are changed by visits from the spirits of beer's key ingredients: water, grain, hops, and yeast. There are some odd and funny passages, especially when it comes to Carolyn Shoemaker-Benjamin's performance as a very peculiar Tiny Tim. But the show is more amusing than uproarious overall—a pleasantly goofy way to pass an hour while nursing a beer. —Tony Adler Through 12/18: Wed 8:30 PM, Sat 4 PM, Drinking & Writing Theater @ Haymarket Pub & Brewery, 737 W. Randolph, 312-638-0700,, $20.

[Recommended] Christmas Bingo: It's a Ho-Ho-Holy Night Vicki Quade has made a career out of Catholic comedy (Late Night Catechism, Bible Bingo), and she's in top form here as Mrs. Mary Margaret O'Brien, a former nun who now heads up the archdiocese's new bingo fund-raising department. Wearing an appropriately kitschy "Happiness Is Playing Bingo" T-shirt, Quade nonetheless plays her character as the sort of stern taskmaster remembered and perhaps beloved by Catholic audience members, quick to send disobedient bingo players—this includes you—to stand with their noses to the chalkboard. Or donate a dollar to the church's pagan-baby fund. Quade delivers little-known Christmas facts with an effective deadpan, bingo helps keep the audience engaged, and the comical throwback prizes include Bing Crosby records and, for the Jewish set, a little Barbra Streisand. —Marissa Oberlander Through 1/5: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Royal George Theatre Center, 1641 N. Halsted, 312-988-9000,, $30.

A Christmas Carol—Abridged Writer-director Rachel Martindale's three-person adaptation of the Dickens holiday cash cow is based on a laudable idea: tone down the spectacle and emphasize the author's wit, storytelling, and many well-turned phrases. But the resulting show doesn't live up to its promise. Performed on an almost bare stage, with minimal costumes and special effects and no music or sound cues, the production makes strong demands on a cast who must play multiple characters and keep our attention for 80 minutes. But this ensemble, which includes Martindale herself, doesn't have the flexibility or energy to make it work. Stephen Fedo, for example, is a convincingly grouchy Scrooge, but he lacks the range necessary for Scrooge's moments of sorrow (upon viewing his past) or his joyful Christmas-morning conversion. —Jack Helbig Through 12/29: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Sun 12/22, 7 PM, and Sun 12/29, 7 PM, Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th, 773-552-8616,, $13-$18.

[Recommended] Christmas Dearest This season Hell in a Handbag artistic director David Cerda risks his scrappy company's financial health by replacing its perennial holiday moneymaker, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, and gambling on an untested show. It's likely to pay off. Cerda wrote and stars in this sublimely awful musical about Joan Crawford starring in a sublimely awful musical about the life of Jesus Christ (she's the Blessed Virgin, natch). Forcing her cast to work on December 25, the diva earns visitations from two Christmas spirits—and Bette Davis—who attempt to revive her dormant humanity. Corrupting A Christmas Carol with vulgar, campy hysterics yields almost nonstop delights—and even bits of wisdom. Director AJ Wright's daring, disciplined cast deliver the goods as Cerda's craft approaches Ludlamesque heights. Rudolph who? —Justin Hayford Through 12/29: Thu-Sun, times vary; see website, Mary's Attic Theatre, 5400 N. Clark, 773-784-6969,, $15-$25.

Elf In the popular 2003 movie on which this musical is based, Will Ferrell set aside his usual pompous-idiot shtick to play Buddy, a guileless denizen of the North Pole who travels to New York City to meet his real family after discovering that he's not actually an elf. Naturally, everybody learns a lesson on the true meaning of Christmas. In contrast to the soulful, childlike quality supplied by Ferrell, Will Blum gives Buddy the sort of cloying jollity often seen on kids' TV shows. Sam Scalamoni's staging likewise employs artificial sweeteners as a substitute for true feeling whenever possible, from the supporting cast's energetic overplaying to Matthew Sklar's relentlessly peppy score. You may as well take a bath in high-fructose corn syrup. —Zac Thompson Through 12/15: Tue-Wed 7:30 PM, Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, 312-902-1400, $18-$90.

[Recommended] El Stories: Holiday Train When you're standing on a freezing el platform, running late and cursing the CTA, the unexpected arrival of the brightly decorated, Santa-toting holiday train is usually a decent pick-me-up, if only by virtue of its sheer weirdness. And so is Waltzing Mechanics' latest collection of real-life straphanger tales adapted to the stage. The holiday installment is a quirky gem, covering everything from the saccharine pleasures of the holiday train itself to perversions requiring a winter overcoat. The appeal is less the hilarity of the anecdotes—though many are genuinely funny—than their authenticity. The storytellers' voices shine through, even when they're confused or hesitant. Under director Zack Florent, the cast are nimble and versatile. If the CTA ran as efficiently, commuters would have little to gripe about. —Keith Griffith Through 1/11: Sat 11 PM, Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336,, $15.

It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play American Theater Company members broke off to form American Blues Theater a few years back (long story), and one result is that Chicago now has two competing "radio" versions of It's a Wonderful Life. The ABT production is sentimental, sweet, and festive, with jovial cast members working the audience before the show begins. I've recommended it. This one, from ATC, is more conventionally theatrical in style and arch in spirit. Under the direction of PJ Paparelli, the conceit—that we're witnessing a 1948 studio broadcast—is strictly maintained. Rather than hobnob with us, the actors act, well, like actors: voice talent hired to perform the classic tale of how American everyman George Bailey copes with the worst crisis of his life. They're distanced from the material, sometimes to the point of eye rolling. Will Allan foolishly reminds us of who he isn't by imitating Jimmy Stewart as George; Mike Nussbaum undermines George's guardian angel, Clarence, by playing him as a fop as opposed to a naif. On the other hand, Mary Hollis Inboden makes herself irresistible in several roles. —Tony Adler Through 12/26: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, 773-409-4125,, $35-$40.

A Sack Full of Coal Suppose some comics got together and decided they wanted to punish all the adults who came to their show for having been naughty. What kind of skits would they produce? In this Whiskey Wry production, the pacing is commendable and the acting is capable, but the comic constant is coal. Santa's horny enforcer assaults naughty children while wearing a luchador mask; a dildo ends up in someone's tight-ass boss's Secret Santa gift bag; a trailer-trash magus comes bearing diaper coupons. Yet it's not all ash. A rendition of A Christmas Carol with Charlie Brown standing in for Scrooge has Twilight Zone-esque flair, and a musical interlude wherein a cat lady's three feline companions sing skillfully and sweetly of her loneliness could have gone on indefinitely and still charmed me through and through. —Jena Cutie Through 12/14: Sat 7:30 PM, Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee, 773-598-4549,, $15.

[Recommended] The Seafarer Conor McPherson's 2006 play unfolds in the squalid home of Irish brothers Richard, a petulant drunk who's recently lost his eyesight, and Sharky, a hotheaded drunk who's recently lost his job. They spend Christmas Eve playing poker with neighboring drunks Ivan and Nicky, as well as a suave stranger who turns out to be the devil come to collect Sharky's soul. It may not sound like ideal holiday fare, but McPherson supplies a kind of provisional redemption that feels more earned and far more genuine than what you'll find in most entertainment options this time of year. Matt Miller's fine staging for Seanachai Theatre Company is beautifully acted, particularly by an energetically cranky Brad Armacost as Richard and a touchingly befuddled Ira Amyx as Ivan. —Zac Thompson Through 1/5: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, 773-609-2336,, $21-$30.

A Silent Christmas Carol What's the point? I wondered when I saw Alzan Pelesic wearing whiteface as Ebenezer Scrooge, his eyes and lips highlighted in black. What's to be gained from seeing Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol staged as if it were an old-time silent movie? This production doesn't supply a rational answer. But I found that rationality mattered less and less to me as it went on. Silent Theatre Company's adaptation suffers considerably from problems brought on by trying to boil the scenario down to a quick 75 minutes. The original story's two holiday parties, for instance, are merged into one at the cost of plausibility. Still, Diane Hamm's costumes for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future evince a great, otherworldly charm; together with Isaiah Robinson's witty piano score and some generous performances (Nick Leininger, in particular, contributes a marvelous physical evocation of Jacob Marley's suffering), they more than justify the show on sensual grounds. —Tony Adler Through 12/29: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 5 PM, Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston, 773-539-7838,, $15-$20.

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