WALKING HOME PAST what I'm fairly certain were sheep droppings in front of the Paramountcourtesy of the livestock from the Rockettes' Nativity sceneI couldn't help but think of it as some kind of metaphor for the week that had just ended. I'd spent the previous five days catching much of city's yuletide entertainment, not all of it Christmas-oriented, and much of it was, well, rather spotty.
The best show you can see right now in the city belongs to Everett Quinton, the veteran of Charles Ludlam's famed Ridiculous Theatre, whose one-man rendition of Oliver Twist should pull you away from whatever else you're doing. Twisted Olivia (Empty Space Theatre, ends Sat., Jan. 10, 206-547-7500) has writer/performer Quinton playing a loquacious drag queen rooting madly about Heyd Fontenot's vividly junky apartment set, preparing for an evening's performance with friends but drawn instead into an old volume of Dickens' novel. Olivia proceeds to re-create the tale for us, cleverly using whatever is handy as props: fans, pans, pot holders, and hats (a baseball cap stands in for the Artful Dodger). The orphan's melodrama suits the hard-knock life and passionate histrionics of a drag queen (and, indeed, of Quinton himself, who recently told the Weekly he was "just a loser kid from Brooklyn" when he met Ludlam), and the tender complement makes for engrossing, often moving theater. Climbing over and under and into furniture, Quinton is a breathless storyteller, and capable of camping it up without mocking the tug of the narrative (desperate murderer Bill Sykes throws the tragic Nancy's bodya sheer red scarfinto Olivia's washing machine, tosses a brand name detergent in after it, and quips, "The Tide will carry her out"). He and his director, Eureka, have done Dickens proud, and made one classic from another.
Scot Augustson's Brent or Brenda? (Re-bar, ends Sat., Dec. 27, 206-323-0388), meanwhile, is just determinedly scruffy entertainment that aims to go down good with a beer. As a comedic riff on Glen or Glenda, notoriously awful film director Ed Wood's 1953 plea for cross-dressing liberation, the show is a mess and a bit of a disappointment; the playwright hasn't hit even half of the camp material the movie provides, and director Ed Hawkins (who helmed Re-bar's slap-happy Deflowered in the Attic spoof) isn't exactly a master of discipline. It's in Augustson's typically gonzo, tasteless tangents that the show gets its laughs, finding time for episodes such as the one that imagines tormented transvestite Brent (Ben Laurance) as a test rabbit in a cosmetics lab, where a fellow bunny asks him if her eye shadow makes her look whorish. That's funny, and there's more of that in the second half, when Augustson goes for a howling run with the popular notion that cross-dressers eventually turn to murder ("That's all part of being a transvestite," Brent sighs resignedly). A good cast includes the invaluable Mar T. Feldman (a dead ringer for Imogen Love) and Stacey Plum, who is so calmly hysterical here as Brent's bemused wife that it's a crime she's never been allowed to cut loose on stage like this before.
I initially didn't go into The Eight: Reindeer Monologues (Open Circle Theater, ends Sat., Dec. 20, 206-382-4250) expecting hilarity, because its preshow entertainment, featuring some audience-interactive elves, was aggressively unhilarious: Even at this late date, and with any number of Adam Sandler movies to the contrary, there are whole handfuls of actors who are still somehow convinced that volume plus profanity equals instant humor. And some of the performers in the main event weren't up to the rather easy, if crudely amusing, demands of Jeff Goode's one-joke script (Santa's team is comprised of filthy-mouthed mammals full of salacious gossip when the "Fat Man" is brought to trial for sexual misconduct). Then Dusty Warren appeared in a tracksuit on an exercise bike ordering chai tea over a cell phone and I almost hurt myself laughing. Warren steals the night as Prancer, aka "Hollywood," a smarmy L.A. reindeer dissing everything from Sam Elliot's mustache in the movie Prancer to the veracity of Rudolph's TV special, in which the female Vixen is mistakenly portrayed as a buck ("Putting antlers on that slut is like having a centerfold with a pop-up phallus"). A couple of the other reindeers turn in cagey workSkot Kurruk as a morose Donner with a bad back, Marty Mukhalian doing Audrey Hepburn as elitist ballerina Dancerbut Warren is such a gut buster he makes the rest of the evening worth it.
At least Book-It is trying something new with Red Ranger Came Calling (Center House Theatre, ends Sun., Dec. 28, 206-216-0833). Instead of hauling out its cutesy Owen Meany adaptation for another year, the company has staged the oddball and completely charming children's book by Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, in which a "sour-faced little boy" (Stephen Hando, Meany's puckish lead) during the Depression comes to believe that a gruff old neighbor on Vashon Island may be a needy Santa Claus in the despair of retirement. There's no reason why Myra Platt and Edd Key's musical adaptation eventually can't be a tight little 80-minute treasureit's just not that right now, despite its cheerfulness. Hando works very hard, and there are bursts of the sweet irreverence that made Breathed's beloved Bloom County strip so singular (an elf hoedown has a lot of humorous potential), yet the production never quite finds its footing. This may be because no one here can really sing the winsome tunes, or because the show needs at least a week more in rehearsal; on opening night, there were wobbly voices and limbs that hadn't yet accepted Jane Jones' impish choreography as second nature.
A Christmas Carol has had plenty of rehearsalit's in its 28th year at ACT (ends Sat., Dec. 27, 206-292-7676), a fact that will come as no surprise to anyone watching. The production is practically on remote at this point, which isn't to say you can't get a little choked up by it (c'mon, the Mister Magoo version can squeeze your tear ducts). You have to clomp through the sticky Victorian cheer and some inventive Cockney dialectsI believe Tiny Tim called dad Bob Cratchit "foowatha!" at one pointbut Philip Davidson (who alternates with Terry Edward Moore) makes a nicely sour Scrooge, and Charles Leggett does an engaging, hambone job with the bacchanalian Ghost of Christmas Present (although he plays it so emphatically broadwith pronounced ho-ho-ho's and everythingthat I couldn't be sure it wasn't a sly way of letting us all know what a fine hell he was in for the holidays). The show is still sturdy enough entertainment for the uninitiated, but it doesn't seem to be particularly important to anyone on stage.
Black Nativity (Intiman Theatre, ends Sun., Dec. 28, 206-269-1900) could also use a little juice from a new director. The production, which uses gospel music and Langston Hughes' words to recreate the Nativity, has been an Intiman standard for only six years, and, sorry, it already looks a little tired in Jacqueline Moscou's hands. Whenever it's singing, which is often, the show is unassailably joyful; Pastor Patrinell Wright enters with her Total Experience Gospel Choir and roars into "Joy to the World," and your throat clutches happily. But as soon as the music stops, you get a bunch of singers trying to act and, well, you know how that goes: Woeful amateur mime illustrates the birth of the Baby Jesus, and the production starts to feel like it belongs in some affable community theater and not in this polished venue.
Call me a purist, but I don't think The Wizard of Oz (The 5th Avenue, ends Sun., Dec. 21, 206-292-ARTS) belongs on any stage. Director Bill Berry's production is nothing more than a movie crammed underneath a proscenium arch. Granted, kids will be thrilled (during the first half, anyway) with this rather lumbering show. Things flythere's a great cyclone sequenceand it's big and colorful and has all of the film's magical music. Anyone who can tell the difference between original entertainment and prostituted nostalgia, however, will be increasingly appalled as the night wears on. The production relies so heavily on our familiarity with the original that the few differences in treatment or costume become glaring; I never thought I'd be so distracted by the fact that the Tin Woodman (Louis Hobson) was packing more than just an oil can. And there's a reason why "The Jitterbug" dance number was cut from the screen version, folks: It was a lousy, dated idea and the filmmakers were smart enough to know ithaving unfortunate actors shimmy in rubber insect costumes does not a showstopper make. Although Cara Rudd's whiny, petulant Dorothy needs a vigorous shaking, the failure here isn't the mostly capable actors' fault: Trotting this thing out on stage and assuming that it could ever be as good as its inspiration is like telling someone that if she just stands within a picture frame and smirks, she can be the Mona Lisa. The show is tacky and underdirected, and you can buy a pristine copy of the real deal on DVD for less than this ticket price. (Well, you knew I'd get a "bah, humbug" in somewhere, didn't you?)
While the obvious cash cows are still grinding away on automatic, catch at least one of the few newcomers showing sparks of original life.