What if Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol had a modern-day spinoff featuring Jacob Marley – only this time, Marley was a gumshoe? Okay, a “dead as a doornail” gumshoe? It might be called A Christmas Cactus, an Off The Quill production written by Eliot Byerrum and Directed by Leanne Dinverno at the Greenbelt Arts Center.
In this holiday comedy, it is not Ebenezer Scrooge, but Cactus O’Riley (Shannon Riley) who owns the business, a detective agency, which she took over after Jake Marley kicked the bucket. Her assistant is Fred— a familiar moniker to fans of the play’s classic inspiration— Booker (Thomas Stratton.) As the play opens, it is Christmas Eve; Cactus and Fred are about to close up shop when two escaped convicts, Neville Smedley (Don Cook) and Ramon Ramirez (Marlowe J. Vilchez) barge in and clumsily hold them hostage.
Neville is looking for Detective Marley, who he claims framed him for embezzlement. When Smedley learns of Marley’s death, he insists that Cactus go through the files to find evidence that proves his innocence. Things become complicated when Fred’s mother, Adelaide Booker (Katie Wanschura) arrives unexpectedly. In order to keep her in the dark about the real reason the prisoners are in the office, the situation is reframed as a murder mystery party. When deputy district attorney Stuart Windsor (J. Peter Langsdorf) joins the group, he recognizes the at-large jailbirds almost immediately; however, he keeps up the party ruse, because it’s Christmas – and because he has a thing for Cactus.
As fiery, red-headed private investigator Cactus, Shannon Riley was quick and witty and worked wonderfully well with J. Peter Langsdorf as Stuart Windsor. Their chemistry was palpable. J. Peter Langsdorf, in turn, played Stuart Windsor with the sexy confidence and assuredness that he will always capture his man (and Cactus, for that matter.) Don Cook, as Smedley, was bumbling and tense – which gave the character a nervous, frenetic energy – while Marlowe J. Vilchez, as Ramon Ramirez, was a calming influence. His sincere portrayal made the audience want to root for him. Katie Wanschura, as Adelaide, evoked the Ghost of Christmas Present. She was loud, funny, brash, and dressed colorfully – all in animal print. As Adelaide’s son Fred, Thomas Stratton had a difficult job – to not fall into his mother’s shadow (or Katie Wanschura’s.) He very successfully carved out his own path, both on the stage and in the story, rounding out the cast nicely.
Throughout the play, there are several nods to the works of Charles Dickens, including the aforementioned usage of the name, Fred, (like Scrooge’s nephew.) We also learn that Neville Smedley’s middle name (as he is quite embarrassed to admit) is Fezziwig. In the embezzlement case files, there is a reference to the Handicapped Children’s Fund, otherwise known as the “Tiny Tim Fund.” The agency had a green bust of Charles Dickens as a centerpiece for the office, and various characters used books from the Dickens collection to figure out if and how Marley might have set Neville up. All of these gems are compliments of playwright Eliot Byerrum, a master of sneaking Dickens in at every conceivable angle.
The set, with its dingy desks and dusty bookcases filled with antique volumes, featured an operational window that opened to a balcony (or a fire escape) overlooking the city. This served the purpose of splitting the action without necessitating a set change. One very effective feature of the lighting design occurred whenever Cactus was making a particularly sleuth-like realization. The general stage wash would suddenly and dramatically dim to a single spotlight on Cactus, and she would explain the situation with vocal stylings reminiscent of old detective shows, which was a lot of fun and added to the quality of the show. Producer Patrick Mullen takes the credit for both Lighting and Set Design in this production, making him a crucial component to the successful holiday stage endeavor.
Overall, the timing and quick wit of this production provides many moments of laughter and enjoyment. It may be just the treat you are looking for this holiday season.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with one intermission
Christmas Cactus plays through December 19, 2015 with Off the Quill at Greenbelt Arts Center— 123 Centerway in historic Greenbelt, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 441-8770 or purchase them online.