Two for the season

Bells are ringing, nutcrackers brighten downtown streets and soon the candles will be lit. It's winter holiday time, and Seattle theaters are geared up to greet the season. Whatever your cele-bration - Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa - you'll find some-thing in local theaters to bring you cheer or tug at your heart-strings. Two ferinstances:

At ACT Theatre it's "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. The spirit of Christmas is evident in the audience even before the performance begins. Little girls in black velvet and white lace, hair pulled back Alice in Wonderland-style, totter about on shoes that seem a bit too high for their tiny feet. Boys in white shirts and ties look longingly at their age mates whose parents let them come in jeans and gym shoes. Adults seem cheery, especially those wearing red stocking hats trimmed in white. They're all ready for a good time, and that's just what they'll get.

This is ACT's 31st annual production of the holiday classic, and they have it down. From the start, the audience is transported to Victorian London. Gas-lit streets, flurries of snow, old Scrooge's austere office with its writing quills and scrivener's desk. It is there that Bob Cratchit sits.

Poor Bob Cratchit, filled with good cheer and love for his fam-ily and his fellow man, has to work for a mean-spirited, miser-ly old man who sits counting his money but won't let Cratchit put even one lump of coal on the fire. We all know the story.

Scrooge is unkind to all. He exploits Cratchit, rejects any expression of affection from his own nephew and refuses to participate in charitable efforts. But, ah! he learns the folly of his ways when he's visited on Christmas Eve by three spirits: one to remind him of Christmas past, one to focus his attention on Christmas present and one to give him a glimpse of his future. The memories of happy times and the prophecy of a lonely and unmourned death convert Scrooge. The curmudgeon turns philanthropist. He now understands that it is indeed more blessed to give, and give he does - on Christmas Day and, we are led to believe, for the rest of his life.

Familiar though the story may be, ACT offers it with some surprises. Terrific lighting by Michael Wellborn and sound by Eric Chappelle, plus the wonderful stage magic conceived by scenic designer Shelley Henze Schermer and director R. Hamilton Wright, provide all the magic of a Victorian Christmas mixed with scary moments that may be too much for tiny tots but are a delight for school-age kids and the adults in the audience. The production boasts a good cast who, in their charming costumes, remind us of just what we love about Christmas.

This is the quintessential secular Christmas story. Not only is it a tale of redemption, but it is a story about human fellowship, the delight of cele-bration and the grace of charity.

Book-It's "Bud, Not Buddy" is a play that achieves the requisite tug at the heartstrings but has nothing to do with Christmas trees or menorahs. Yet it, too, is a story of redemption. In it, a genuinely good but misused little boy seeks the father he never knew and eventually finds the love he hungers for in a warm but unconventional family.

Adapted by Reginald André Jackson from the prize-winning young-adult novel by Christopher Paul Curtis, the story takes place in Michigan during the Depression. As the play begins, 10-year-old Bud is moved from an orphanage to a foster home where the miseries of life without parents are even more profound. He runs away to look for his father. The main clue to the man's identity lies in the battered suitcase he took with him after his mother died. It's a flyer announcing a jazz concert featuring Herman E. Calloway. So begins young Bud's odyssey.

With help from a kind-hearted librarian, Bud learns how far he has to trek from Flint to Grand Rapids, a good starting point for his search. Suitcase in hand, he sets out, encountering snarling animals, the kindly residents of one of the Depression's many Hoover-villes set up by homeless people, mean policemen and finally a compassionate driver who transports Bud to Grand Rapids, where he hopes to find a clue to the whereabouts of the jazzman he thinks is his father.

The able adult cast plays both the children and grown-ups in the play. Some are a bit cloying in their roles as youngsters, but not Earl Alexander in the title role. He's totally at home in his 10-year-old persona and seamlessly makes the transitions from Bud in the real world to Bud in the world of his imagination and back again.

Bud's imaginary world is straight out of Maurice Sendak - which is straight out of a child's nightmares and fearful moments. As he pursuers his quest, the youngster is stalked by creepy and scary monsters, all realized through Alex-ander's astute acting and Brian Healy's lights and Shalini Malasingam's sound. These effects are just scary enough to titillate rather than frighten school-age children.

This is good alternative theater for adults or families who crave a holiday experience but want to avoid the traditional fare. Not all of the devices conceived for moving the action along worked for me; actors popping out of the dark to announce "Bud, not Buddy's Rules for Life" seemed hokey. But maybe if I were 10 years old, I'd have a different attitude.

Although a bit long, it's a charming piece that leaves you feeling good, and, after all, that's what holidays are about.

'A Christmas Carol'

ACT Theatre, 700 Union St.

Tuesdays-Sundays through Dec. 24

Tickets $15-$44, 292-7676 or 'Bud, Not Buddy'

Book-It Repertory Theatre

Seattle Center House Theatre

Wednesdays-Sundays through Dec. 23

Tickets $15-$32, 216-0833 or
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