ArtsWest, 938-0339.
Dec 17 at 3 and 7:30.

The best Christmas shows take the audience both to another place and time and to their own fondly remembered childhoods. The staging of John Gilbert's Scrooge! may enjoy such a transporting effect largely by accident. With this hastily assembled but welcome run at ArtsWest, Gilbert not only celebrates his 25th year of reading his one-performer adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but the low ceilings of the basement performing space and the baked goods for purchase on nearby folding tables may remind some of a long-ago childhood pageant. By the time Michael Harris finishes his suite of sing-along Christmas carols, one half expects a school principal to appear and thank everyone for coming.

The actorly precision and versatility of Gilbert's reading soon forces the audience out of nostalgic reverie and into the best parts of Dickens' text. Gilbert plays to certain strengths of spoken word performance. His performance of Dickens' descriptive passages is marvelous. For those used to the visual shorthand of theater or film, hearing Gilbert's well-trained voice roll over the sights and sounds from the Cratchit Christmas dinner or the Fezziwig Yuletide celebrations can be revelatory. Gilbert also carefully reiterates important plot points and minute changes in character, drawing the audience into his largely sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist. No one can help but follow the story as Gilbert tells it. The actor is even cagey enough to leave some of his most broadly played characterizations until the play's final scenes, perhaps in an attempt to keep those already familiar with the text--or unaccustomed to live performance--interested until story's end. Modest and unassuming, Scrooge! does more with ink on paper and an empty room than some elaborately staged productions and satires do with big budgets and an army of creative support. Stop in if you're near. TOM SPURGEON

Black Nativity
Intiman Theatre, 269-1900.
Through Dec 24.

This is the third year Intiman has mounted Langston Hughes' gospel song play Black Nativity. As if having local hero-saints Pastor Patrinell Wright, Rev. Samuel McKinney, and the Total Experience Gospel Choir were not enough, this year the cast is the largest that's ever been on an Intiman stage--41 folks singing and dancing and praising their way to ecstasy. Black Nativity, which Hughes wrote in l961, was intended to be not only entertaining musical theater, but also a spiritual and social call to arms. The first half of the show is a song and dance story of a young unwed mother, Mary, and her man Joseph who are homeless. There is, in Hughes' words, "no room at the hotel" for them. (Note to Seattle City Council: More affordable housing, please.) The non-speaking roles of Mary and Joseph are performed by two fine dancers, Erricka S. Turner and Bertram Johnson, both making their Intiman debuts. That's one of the best things about this annual event, that it introduces some amazing talent that has yet to make it onto Seattle's mainstream stages. Another astonishing debut is that of l8-year-old Alvedo Alexander, who plays a swanlike shepherd, a breakdancer, and a wise man, all with a positively transcendent physical grace. Many of the vocalists--Karen Hodge, Leah Vladowski, Grady Anthony Austin, and Sam Townsend Jr.--are terrific, too. But the person that left me completely drop-jawed was the magnificent Stephanie Scott-Hatley. If you ever, ever, ever hear that this woman is singing, acting, preaching, or even giving a lecture on the history of accounting, do whatever you have to do to go see her. She's like a hurricane with a brain. There are a couple of low points in the show--a white-face mime clown scene and an embarrassing audience participation finale of "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand." Just keep your hands in your pockets and you'll be fine. REBECCA BROWN

Citizen Scrooge
The Market Theatre, 781-9273.
Through Dec 23.

You know you're doomed when you predict the first election joke will come 15 minutes into a performance and end up being wrong because you said "minutes" instead of "seconds." Citizen Scrooge performs the remarkable feat of going downhill from that initial moment of divine obviousness, offering Seattle a theatrical lump of coal that resembles one of those low-rent holiday all-star TV specials--except that every time the doorbell rings, it's another lame pop culture riff instead of Paul Lynde.

For no good reason, Citizen Scrooge conflates Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. This isn't a terrible choice. Although ultimately dissimilar, each story concerns an angry old man, and each makes its points through biographical detail. But rather than using one work to comment on the other, or using elements found in both to take on some larger point, the two are simply mashed together. In Citizen Scrooge, the counting house becomes a newspaper, names are cross-pollinated into mutant mouthfuls like "Fredediah," and Scrooge's lonely suite of rooms becomes Xanadu. And that, unfortunately, is about as clever as it gets. What would be a laudable set of ideas for an improv group with 10 minutes to create a show from thin air doesn't come close to passing muster for a mainstage play, let alone one that's been performed before. In terms of the hard work that comes with creative authorship, Citizen Scrooge is as miserly as its protagonist.

Some audiences love shows like Citizen Scrooge because they don't feel stupid after watching them. That's fine for what it is, but I guarantee you the retina-clawing sight of the three ghosts doing the Charlie's Angels pose won't make you feel very smart, either. Give yourself the gift of not going. TOM SPURGEON