From the preshow cellphone-and-candy-wrapper announcements by stage manager M.J. (Jessica Biernaki Jensen), Inspecting Carol wraps its arms around the audience and says, Here goes. The Unicorn, with the Kansas City Actors Theatre and UMKC Theatre, sends up seasonal sentiment with this play within a play — a farce within a farce, really — which combines elements of Noises Off, Waiting for Guffman and, particularly, Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General. More than just a Christmas Carol spoof, though, it's a feast of spontaneous, continual, uncontrollable laughter.
Inspecting Carol, by Daniel Sullivan (and the Seattle Repertory Theatre), packs its influences into a box, then busts it open with precision mayhem. Directed by UMKC acting professor Theodore Swetz, the play pokes obvious fun at the annual Dickens staple, but also takes on the writing and acting processes and the marketing of theater companies.
The troupe in question is the Soapbox Playhouse, whose actors are struggling to get through a rehearsal of the shoestring show they somehow pull off each Christmas season. Recent hire Kevin (Vincent Wagner) has been brought in to manage the theater's finances, but he must explain to Zorah (Cathy Barnett), the long-struggling and unconventional company director, that they have no money. "You don't know who I was when I started this place," she tells him. "I wanted to change people. ... What did I mean, change people? Into what?" He answers, "Nonsubscribers, maybe?"
This year, they learn that the National Endowment for the Arts might not just reduce its grant but withhold it entirely due to the Soapbox's "significant artistic deficit." Liable for the production's significant bills in that case would be the founding members of this rock-bottom company. That includes Sidney (Robert Gibby Brand), an older, laid-back actor who walks around dragging the chains of his Marley's ghost (among other props); Dorothy (Nancy Marcy), Sidney's wife, who can't easily lose her English accent; Phil (Phil Fiorini), a middle-aged nerd who complains about his back — and, as Cratchit, having to carry a too-plump and too-large Luther (Beckett Pfanmiller), who is 11 and too old to still be playing Tiny Tim.
The Soapbox players are waiting for an NEA rep. They're not sure who it is or when he or she might show up, but they're worried. Could it be Wayne (Patrick Du Laney), who has dropped everything to follow his "bliss" as an actor and has come in to audition?
Kevin breaks the news: "We're broke."
"Of course we're broke," Larry (John Rensenhouse), the group's Scrooge, explains. "We're an arts organization." (The Unicorn's box office should hold a ticket each night for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.)
Larry suggests a fundraiser. "This is the fundraiser," Zorah responds in frustration, meaning the 12th-annual Christmas Carol production. It's usually a moneymaker, something the audience demands. But Larry is bored. He searches for ways to change it up, having once recited all of his lines in Spanish. "You have any idea what it's like to play these roles year after year?" he asks. "We get bored. Comprende?"
His Spanish-language rendition, a protest against U.S. involvement in Central America, is one of the 1980s references that dates this 1992 show. Others: Joseph Campbell; Robert Mapplethorpe; and Zorah's attempt to make the cast "multicultural" by adding an African-American character, Walter (Thomas Tucker). But these anachronisms are forgiven when Rensenhouse enunciates the word Nicaragua.
Walter, a young Army veteran, struggles not only to learn his lines but also to know what they are as Larry initiates a last-minute rewrite. And Walter is set to play a ghost whose costume includes a white hand. "Ghosts are white," goes the excuse.
The government's hand reaches into this fictional company, whose survival depends on public funding. The ambitious Soapbox Playhouse turns its panic into raucous slapstick, expertly executed by the Unicorn's talented, real-life ensemble.
Like hopeful gamblers, the Soapbox performers play the slots and pray for their alignment. But members of the audience, dizzy from all the action, end up with the real winnings.