"Marley was dead, to begin with. ...This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story (the American Shakespeare Center is) going to relate." The American Shakespeare Center puts its own distinct spin on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Adapted by Artistic Director Jim Warren, this version uses the Blackfriar's Playhouse and Shakespeare's staging conditions to tell the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's Christmas redemption in a clear concise manner that is a perfect introduction for families and first time theatergoers not only to A Christmas Carol but to the American Shakespeare Center itself.
This is an adaptation that strips away the special effects, caroling casts of thousands and additional scenes other productions use to pad out the story to two or more hours. Here, the taut ensemble of fourteen uses a bare minimum of set pieces to briskly keep the action to just over ninety minutes. While this is not a perfect production, it still manages to convey the heart and soul of Charles Dickens' ghostly tale.
At the American Shakespeare Center members of the ensemble may perform several different roles. Both men and women can play roles of the opposite gender. The lights remain on, meaning the actors can see and more easily engage the audience. Audience members can sit on the stage or in the balcony behind the audience. Music is a big part of the American Shakespeare Center experience. For A Christmas Carol songs of the season are sung before the show and during the interlude. Music is also used to inspired effect within the performance particularly in the Fezziwig Christmas Party scene.
Jacob Marley rattles his chains, but there are no menacing lighting and sound effects, so the very young should not be too frightened of him. Patrick Earl, bound to the depth of hell courtesy of the trap door, creates a pitiable Marley, yet he uses just a bit of makeup and an urgent tone to convey Marley's warning of the doom that awaits the unrepentant Scrooge,
The Ghost of Christmas Past is portrayed by Allison Glenzer with a light frivolity. When she forces Scrooge to relive his painful past she does so firmly yet compassionately. Andrew Goldwasser's Christmas Present fills the stage not with a large stature. Mr. Goldwasser commands both Scrooge and the audience with dynamic stage presence as Christmas Present conveys the ways in which those with means do not always heed the spirit of the season. David Millstone must use only physical means to portray the foreboding Christmas Future, yet it is quite effective.
Jake Mahler is meek and gentle as the poor clerk Bob Cratchit. There was not a sound from the audience as he related the Cratchit family tragedy in Christmas Future. Patrick Midgley is vibrant as nephew Fred who no matter what never gives up on his grumpy Uncle. Rick Blunt narrates the story jovially and has a great time keeping the audience engaged in the story and lovingly teasing Ebenezer Scrooge.
Rene Thornton, Jr. is a more physically robust Ebenezer Scrooge than you may be used to seeing. There is nothing in Dickens' original tale that says he has to be elderly and frail and in many ways casting a relatively young Scrooge has its advantage. In Mr. Warren's script this Scrooge plays his younger self in the Past scenes and delights in engaging with nephew Fred's parlor games. Mr. Thornton is a thoroughly detestable old grump and he torments cast and audience alike. His transformation to an adherent of the true spirit of Christmas is a delight to behold.
The minimal staging conditions and lack of spectacle may bother veteran theatergoers who have seen many, many A Christmas Carols with a bit more stage pizazz. Yet this brisk production, well acted and brimming with audience engagement is a great introduction to the American Shakespeare Center for young and old.
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol adapted by Jim Warren is playing in repertory with David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries and Jenna Hoben's The Twelve Dates of Christmas through December 27, 2012. Please note that the latter two plays are intended for mature audiences only. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.