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The Santa Nick Verses--A Corporate Christmas Carol/Dogg's Hamlet

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THE SANTA NICK VERSES--A CORPORATE CHRISTMAS CAROL

at the Crack'd Mirror Cabaret

DOGG'S HAMLET

Profiles Performance Ensemble

at Red Bones Theatre

Despite its title, Shear Madness is about as crazy as a profit margin. Just as most theaters pray for Santa to bring them a Christmas Carol like the Goodman's, so every downtown hotel craves a conventioneers' cult show like Madness. The Santa Nick Verses--A Corporate Christmas Carol combines elements of both hits--audience participation as in Shear Madness, and a Dickensian transformation a la Christmas Carol.

Unfortunately the borrowings are pretty crudely cobbled together; this entertainment cries out for a crowd anesthetized by alcohol.

Developed by the ensemble under the direction of Barbara Wallace, The Santa Nick Verses (its title a labored pun on Salman Rushdie's proscribed novel) takes place at the annual Christmas office party/shareholders' meeting of the Wholesome Family Greeting Card Company. After the "shareholders" (audience members) are welcomed, given name tags, and led in a caroling sing-along, we plunge into the crisis besetting the 64-year-old company: sales are plummeting, union troubles threaten a strike, and management is in chaos.

Worse, nobody likes anybody else. They steal each other's personal files and gleefully spill the dirt. The CEO (Ian Harris) suffers from a rare "pronoun disorder" and selective amnesia; he'll soon be forcibly retired. The head of human resources (Sarah Jackson), a "career virgin," gets dumped on by the perky PR director (Lisa Renee), while the potted accountant (Susan Mele), a former man and now the office slut, reviles the CEO's nebbishy flunky (Micky Govern).

To complicate this crisis two consultants from a rival card company, a British martinet (David Volin) and his Teutonic gay enforcer (Ed Shimp), arrive to attempt a clumsy takeover. They mean to scale down operations by firing everyone and introducing a new line of X-rated "Kama Sutra Christmas cards," with messages like "Christmas is coming and so am I!" as well as overt suggestions of bestiality in the manger. In the play's wildly overplotted, desperately contrived resolution, the two are exposed as impostors and undergo a Scroogelike redemption.

The audience ate all this up, especially the demented parody medley/management lecture called "Broadway to Better Business." Wallace's seven-member ensemble maintain complete voice control over their stereotypes, and they know how to go into overdrive to work a room.

Clearly someone decided that a witty plot would be wasted on a drinking audience. Better to substitute the kind of aggressive high spirits that incite an audience to match them. With the right shameless energy and crazed conviction, you can bluster your way through strained humor and easy targets, dragging the audience along for the ride. Just look at Shear Madness.

There's a ton of intellectual fun in the 40 minutes of Dogg's Hamlet, Tom Stoppard's merry spoof of human talk that shows just how often context determines content. What we really hear is often just inflection and expression, recalling the proverbial actor who can bring an audience to tears by reading the phone book.

In this bilingual romp, English is a mere second language (as it was for the Czech-born playwright). The first tongue, spoken by members of a boys' school, is Dogg, an internally consistent stew of British slang insults ("useless git") and repulsively explicit phrases crushed together in German fashion. But the situations are so clear, the schoolboys' reactions so obviously shaped by their surroundings, that the nonsense makes sense; an English-spouting carpenter who stops by to build the set for the school play soon finds himself speaking pidgin Dogg.

The boys' activities suggest all they say--eating lunch, conning lines, clumsily assembling planks into a platform and lettered blocks into the play's title, and enduring a fatuous school awards ceremony in which one simperingly precocious boy, Fox Major, wins all the tiny trophies.

Directed by a don who's also called Dogg, Fox Major takes the title role in the school's 15-minute Evelyn Wood-style Hamlet, performed in the original "foreign" tongue (not farfetched considering the difficulties of kids today learning Shakespeare).

This sped-up Hamlet hilariously recalls Pyramus and Thisbe, Shakespeare's spoof of his own Romeo and Juliet, rampaging through costume changes, famous quotes, instant emotions, and wooden declamations. The quickie tragedy not only sends up amateur histrionics but provides its own deflating comment on Hamlet's lament--"words, words, words." Dogg's Hamlet reduces the world's greatest play to just those, much as Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead deconstructed it. The farce becomes more absurd when the boys replay the tragedy even more frenetically as an encore. (It's a sad thought that there's no great tragedy that wouldn't look ridiculous at high speed.)

The latest installment in Profiles Performance Ensemble's "Dark Nite Series," Kenny Mitten's staging mainly stays on top of the dazzling wordplay, Monty Python stereotypes, and accelerating action. Joe Jahraus plays Dogg with headmasterly pomposity, and deft turns come from Jim Winfrey as the down-to-earth carpenter and Troy Skeeters as the hammily epicene Hamlet. Cindi Jahraus's props and costumes suggest a community theater's budgetary desperation.

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