CenterREP's production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol is hammy, traditional, and completely predictable. But then Carol is one of those shows about which it can be said that those are positive attributes, and CenterREP approaches the material respectfully and without getting too goopy and mawkish, which is a relief considering what some companies have done to it. Director Scott Denison remembers that this story is supposed to be big, scary, and thought-provoking, and directs his cast and designers accordingly.
This is not a story that brooks much experimentation, even if it had been translated into Esperanto by 1908. Although its themes are both timeless and universal -- love matters more than money, joy is fleeting and must be treasured, there is such a thing as a second chance -- the details are very British, very Victorian, and very Dickensian, spread over the wide canvas of society and human nature that marked his work. Sure, the twin orphans of Dickens' nightmare -- Ignorance and Want -- still haunt us. But the language highlighted in the CenterREP version -- "Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that" -- is that of an earlier time, when novels were serialized and readers thrilled to melodramatic descriptions of haunted doorknockers, gay parties, and humble families.
It's also not a story audiences want to see tampered with. Shortened, maybe. Do the whole thing with the bread thievery at the beginning and so on, and one is reminded that Dickens never settled for one word when three would do the job just as well, especially if two were adverbs. But otherwise, it's like The Rocky Horror Picture Show; people like knowing the words and what's coming next. Over in San Francisco, ACT artistic director Cary Perloff has built a completely new Carol, with new songs, added text, deleted narration, and waltzing fruit, and people aren't sure what to make of it. Perhaps in thirty years it will seem as traditional as the version that preceded it, but right now, well -- dancing onions?
The CenterREP version may be more naturalistic, but the set and special effects are cool. The Ghost of Christmas Past disappears in a bright blue bullet of light. Between Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come, London dissolves into a spooky funhouse of glowing chains and supercampy skeletons. The set has Kelly Tighe written all over it in the fractured facades that recall his design for the company's Summer and Smoke. The brickwork, gas lamps, and partially obscured areas where unwholesome creatures lurk are even spookier lit with John Earls' cool palette of blues and grays.
In a world where, once you've done the role successfully, your Decembers are spoken for until you're as dead as Marley, this is only Jack Powell's second turn of the Scrooge. While he has the vicious impatience of a man approached by one panhandler too many, he gets tender early, and his wide-eyed wonder watching the dancing at Fezziwig's is particularly affecting. Powell is matched with first-grader Evan Lachman, the very tiniest Tim the director could find. Lachman, who is roughly the size of a Chicken McNugget, obligingly broke a leg in October to bring verisimilitude to his part by spending two months in a full-leg cast; he also is very cute and his voice carries well.
Instead of cashboxes and locks at the ends of his chains, Kevin Blackton's Marley inexplicably has two mewling creatures he occasionally makes roll around on the stage. It would be nice to see a little less bombast and a little more variety of delivery, instead of punctuating every dire pronouncement by tossing around the chain-creatures.
But it's Michael Ray Wisely's Scottish-inflected Ghost of Christmas Present who really sparkles. He's particularly jolly up until the very last moment when he springs the unwanted Children of Man on Scrooge. And he is mischievous, lifting women's skirts, tipping punch cups, and rolling the "R" in Scrooge as if it were a boulder down a mountainside.
Ironically, the story that would become Dickens's best-known work didn't make very much money at first. Sales were so disappointing that, believing himself ruined in England, Dickens moved his whole family to Italy for a while to live more cheaply. But eventually Carol would make Dickens not just rich, but the richest and most famous author of his time. And he had to invent the book tour to do it. Before Dickens, the idea of an author making public appearances to read from his work was largely unheard of. In The Friendly Dickens, Norrie Epstein tells us that "Dickens' friends had warned him that few people would want to buy a book after they had already 'heard' it; yet after a performance, sales of the novels increased significantly," a fact that did not escape the notice of Thackeray and Twain, who took up the idea.
Such was the power of live performance in the days before TiVo and Netflix, when the only way you could see something acted out was by going out to watch live people do it. Live theater was hugely popular, and people loved hearing and seeing the same stories performed over and over again. A tradition CenterREP wisely doesn't mess with in its lavish, reliable Carol.
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