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THE SCROOGE VARIATIONS

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Audiences will jovially ask themselves where in the Dickens this absurdist and imaginative Christmas show came from. The demented but cheery mind of playwright Eric Pfeffinger seems to be the responsible party, as Ebenezer Scrooge's (Beans Morocco) interaction with three ghostly visages takes some sharp turns into loony-land, including anachronistic appearances from Martha Stewart, cell phones, and even a sharply executed dance number, in 19th century garb, to the tune of Michael Jackson's Thriller. Nowhere in Charles Dickens' original work will you find Scrooge and Jacob Marley (Robert Stephen Ryan) chuckling about the funds they have hidden in Cayman Island accounts, or for that matter, a Ghost of Christmas Five Minutes Ago.

Director Richard Ford has kept this wild, revisionist ride well-oiled, as he uses a quick blackout routine, not unlike a David Ives sketch, to suggest how wrong the normal Scrooge storyline can go. The Ghost of Christmas Future (Sandra Kinder) is an irascible Elaine Stritch character, barking orders about Scrooge's alternate universes into a headphone. Those looking for a nominal plot, or just plain common sense, will undoubtedly be disappointed and miss the point of this far-out sendup, in which Bob Cratchit's family appears in a sitcom featuring expertly cruel gags perpetrated against Tiny Tim.

The entire cast is funny and strong, and most play numerous roles. While it may seem like delivering a lump of coal to not cite them all, there are memorable turns from Shon Little as a blithe, snotty Ghost of Christmas Past, Colleen McFadden as everything from Mrs. Cratchit to a therapist, and Wendy Arimah, who plays, among five roles, Scrooge's daffy, slutty maid and a sister he is a bit too fond of, alas. Bah humbug to the inevitable, slavish revivals of A Christmas Carol. This unrelentingly surprising work is what Dickens might have written, if only there were psychedelics in London in the 1800s.

"The Scrooge Variations," presented by Vox Humana at the Century City Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (Also Sun. 2 p.m. Dec. 5 & 19.) Dec. 2-19. $10-20. (323) 769-5794.

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