The Ebenezer Cycle
at Annex Theatre, 728-0933.
$12. Through Dec 16.

SOMETIMES THE PARTS are greater than the whole. Carl Barks, who created the Scrooge McDuck character for Walt Disney, once commented that his source material, A Christmas Carol, "wasn't convincing." And after a million sitcom send-ups and multiple movie versions, it's hard to argue that we, as a culture, afford Charles Dickens' popular story much value, either. When one's memories of a supposedly important work are seen through a prism that includes Redd Foxx, George C. Scott, and a cartoon voiced by Jim Bacchus, you can't help but ask: How many of us know A Christmas Carol as a whole work about redemption, and how many as a collection of story moments (from Tiny Tim to the Christmas goose as big as the boy who was sent for it)?

In other words, high on high points and low on narrative through-lines, A Christmas Carol is a perfect piece to chop to bits, which is essentially what Annex Theatre does with The Ebenezer Cycle. Five directors get five big, fat chunks of A Christmas Carol to adapt and direct, drawing from the same ensemble cast of eight. The five mini-shows are then strung together in exquisite-corpse style, with little thought as to how the styles and adaptations mix and match for coherence.

Coordinators Stephanie Roberts and Bret Fetzer have done a fine job of recruiting directors with strong signature styles and a broad spectrum of reverence for the original work. The audience-friendly display of loose and surprisingly respectful stage-play that results is the perfect Christmas show for the amateur deconstructionalist in all of us, and a fine night of highly disposable and reasonably stimulating theater.

When watching any version of A Christmas Carol that attempts to engage its full narrative, even in disjointed fashion, the overriding message that comes through isn't the redemptive power of a second chance, but "Boy, were people in the 19th century obsessed with death or what?" Depending on which social historian you believe, the era's necrophilia has its roots in either feelings of helplessness about sudden, arbitrary visits by the Reaper, or a swell-headedness about civilization's growing mastery over these same visits. Either way, Dickens tells one grim story here--about an awful man tormented into goodness and scared straight by a legion of undead, beginning with his ex-business partner (and traditionally the most interesting character in the piece) Jacob Marley.

The Ebenezer Cycle somehow maintains many of those vital elements of creepiness, particularly in Carys Kresny's well-imagined opening segment. Kresny reduces Scrooge's entire miserable life to light sources and basic household implements, making her corporeal spirits that much more profane and frightening. I sincerely doubt Marley's chains have ever been as simply and effectively portrayed. Although giddier in nature, Scot Augustson's pantomime-and-puppetry take on the visit into Christmas future nicely emphasizes the disrespectful banality of death over even its awesome finality. Susanna Wilson's more traditional take on Christmas Past is Dullsville but respectable, only truly suffering when supporting actors play their characters at a higher melodramatic pitch than the admirably restrained leads. And while Ed Hawkins' look at Christmas Present features a rap song and at least one dot-com joke, it stays just clever enough to keep you from wanting to run up on stage and hit people. It helps matters immensely that Hawkins puts that over-dramatic, controlling jerk Tiny Tim in his place, even if he feels giving him a psychic power was necessary to make the point. But Jennifer Pratt's loopy portrayal of Christmas fiction's favorite sickly child might have been funnier without the bad-seed pyrotechnics.

One adaptation stands out for doing a lot with very little: The best moments of The Ebenezer Cycle reveal themselves during Bruce Wylie's take on Scrooge's redemption. He seizes on what many see as a severe dramatic liability--the ease with which Scrooge changes his life and simply makes that his message: Changing one's life might be easy. That's a genuinely lovely thought for the holidays, and Wylie's rapturous world of bodies as furniture and makeshift angel's wings creates a pleasing, take-home image. Nothing about The Ebenezer Cycle demands the show be remounted or even remembered. But when you expect a sweater and you get a race car, just try to wipe that smile off your face.