There are so many quick changes in "The Crummles' Christmas Carol," at MetroStage through Jan. 5, that the six cast members have all they can do to keep their wigs on straight. The title refers to the family of traveling ham actors portrayed in Charles Dickens's "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" and the play imagines how the bickering Crummles would have performed Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" on tour. Actor-manager Vincent Crummles (Michael Tolaydo) calls it "The Nightmare of the Nativity," or "Horrors of a Holy Night."

Elizabeth Stripe plays the Crummles' daughter, Ninetta, known grandly as the Infant Phenomenon though she's well past girlhood. Veteran actress June Hansen (Stripe's mother, who recently celebrated 60 years in theater and played Bob Cratchit as a schoolgirl in England) plays the Lady Dowager Crummles -- the Phenomenon's granny.

Catherine Flye as Mrs. Crummles wears at one point a violently orange wig arranged in Victorian ringlets. In the Crummles' world, Flye sighed after Thursday's opening, there is "no control about what you're doing really, in the hair realm. You just hope to survive it."

Tolaydo, who also plays Scrooge, Marley and many others, said, "The hardest thing is gasping for breath . . . [and] to know what comes next."

The author of this madness is also the director -- Nick Olcott. A co-production of MetroStage and Flye's Interact Theatre Company, "The Crummles' Christmas Carol" was a gleam in Flye's eye and she commissioned Olcott to refract it.

Late in "Nicholas Nickleby," the Crummles embark on a "histrionic expedition" to America. "I decided the first thing they learned about American theater is, if it's December, you've got to do 'A Christmas Carol,' " said Olcott.

He and Flye combined Interact's tradition of old-style British music hall mayhem ("Christmas at the Old Bull & Bush") with Dickens's Crummles and his Christmas fable.

"We get through 'A Christmas Carol' and have 11 musical numbers in less than two hours, so you know we're moving fast," said Olcott. "This is the only 'Christmas Carol' you'll ever see that has a sword fight in it."

Farewell, but Not Really

Richard Schaefers said bye-bye to Arena Stage last night by putting on a little in-house vaudeville show in the Old Vat Room. The theater's business manager (his last day is Jan. 10) is leaving after 34 1/2 (but who's counting?) years. The event also celebrated the pending retirement of Wayne White, director of operations, after 32 years. They noted the absence of Clarence Henry, the maintenance supervisor who died in June, just before he was to retire after 32 years at Arena.

Directing a rehearsal of his show last week, Schaefers told fellow Arena office staffers they needed to be "maybe a little bit crisper" in their campy rendition of "So Long, Farewell" from "The Sound of Music." The men (Arthur Nordlie and Brian O'Connell) wore lederhosen and the women (Cassandra Hoye, who made the costumes, Latarsha Hall and Anne Paine West) turned-up blond braids of yarn and pipe cleaners. Alison Irvin accompanied on electric piano.

Schaefers came to Washington in spring 1965 to start law school at American University. Then he saw "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and was knocked flat. He switched to a master's program in arts management at Columbia University, where he met Arena co-founder Tom Fichandler, who taught there. Schaefers came to Arena as an intern and never left.

Even now, "I don't see myself as separating from Arena Stage," said Schaefers. "I live across the street, for one thing."

Gritty Holiday Fare

Robert McNamara, Scena Theatre's different-drummer kind of guy, has "a history of chasing down plays no one wants to do, can't do or can't get the rights for," he said. His company, which specializes in avant-garde European and British theater, is presenting British playwright Mark Ravenhill's "Shopping and [Expletive]" at the Warehouse Theatre through Sunday. It was a hit in London in 1996-97 and not such a hit off-Broadway in 1998.

London critics viewed the play as moralistic, despite its graphic depiction of drug dealers, gay sex, masochism and pedophilia. Ravenhill's play is "about the nature of sex and money in our society . . . about the breakdown of the human side of people and their search for love and family structure in this fragmented world," McNamara said.

He and Scena have a tradition of doing tough work during the holidays, all the way back to shows he directed in the 1980s, among them Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," Oscar Wilde's "Salome" and Christopher Durang's "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You."

"I always think people are a little more adventurous at Christmastime," McNamara said. "You get enough of 'The Nutcracker' and 'The Christmas Carol' and all that."

Follow Spots

* The Kennedy Center has filled in the blank in its 2002-03 season, announcing that "As You Like It" is the play to be performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company during its month-long residency. It will run April 22-May 18.

* Signature Theatre has cast Matt Bogart as the rainmaker Starbuck in its production of the musical "110 in the Shade," which opens Jan. 21. Bogart has numerous Broadway credits and appeared here in "Company" at the Sondheim Celebration and in Signature's staging of "Side Show." He'll play opposite Jacquelyn Piro's radiant spinster. Eric Schaeffer will direct. The 1964 musical, based on N. Richard Nash's play "The Rainmaker" has been revised by creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, who've also added two songs.

* Olney Theatre Center's William H. Graham Sr. was honored Dec. 2 at the Montgomery County Executive's Ball with the county's first Lifetime Achievement in the Arts and Humanities Award for Excellence. Graham has been affiliated with Olney since 1953 as an actor, director, executive producer and president of the Olney Theatre Corp. He's now chairman of the theater's board of trustees and executive producer of its young professional touring troupe, the National Players.

Author-director Nick Olcott, left, keeps the six-member cast of "The Crummles' Christmas Carol" hopping through a series of character changes. Playing the Cratchit family in this scene are June Hansen, left, Michael Tolaydo, Catherine Flye, Albert Coia, Margie Tompros and, in front, Elizabeth Stripe.