Christmas? Bah, humbug! A Christmas Carol? Humbug-a-lumba, boom bang boom! All of you who object to the sickeningly sweet moral superiority of the Charles Dickens story, not to mention the hypocrisy of showing your love for humanity by elbowing each other to buy electronics on Black Thanksgiving, line up over here to the right. Spread out! You’re tilting the axis of the Earth! There, that’s better.
Here’s your remedy: A Commedia Christmas Carol, in which the Aniello Award-winning troupe Faction of Fools sends up the fossilized story commedia dell’arte style. By this I mean not only that everyone appears wearing fantastic masks which make them look like exotic talking birds (Scrooge McDuck, perhaps) but that everyone is a fool – as we all are, only more subtly.
We know this from the moment the pompous Freddie (Tyler Herman), gesticulating so wildly that he makes mincemeat out of poor Bob Cratchit (Joel David Santner, recalling a young Dick Van Dyke), orates on the merits of Christmas to his unresponsive Uncle, Ebenezer Scrooge (Paul Reisman). It is as if The Three Stooges, come to life and cloned a dozen times, had decided to restore this hoary old story.
No, wait – it comes earlier, at the very outset, when a horde of youngsters toss a half-dozen battered leather balls, not quite filled with air, into the audience. Immediately the theater becomes an impromptu playing field, with balls flying in every direction (for God’s sake, look behind you!), complicating the late seating. Scrooge, interrupted at his money-counting, comes out and confiscates the balls, and we have learned at once what manner of man he is, and what manner of show this is.
The old gang is here – Scrooge, Marley (Toby Mulford), Cratchit and his Mrs. (Julie Garner), Freddie and his lovely bride (Garner), the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Santner), Present (Mulford) and Yet to Come (Santner and Sandra Mae Frank), Young Scrooge (Herman, wearing an enormous magnificent sculpted head, courtesy of Tara Cariaso and Aaron Elson of Waxing Moon Masks), his sister Fan (Garner) and his beloved Belle (Garner), and even Tiny Tim (Michael Sprouse, wearing another astonishing carved Waxing Moon head).
They play out the old familiar story – the ghost of Marley appearing in chains in Scrooge’s home, warning of the adventure awaiting the miser; the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows him a time when he was loved but threw it away for money; the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Present, who lets him see the Cratchit family, including their disabled child Tiny Tim, as they settle down to their paltry dinner (in this telling, a horsefly); and the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be, who shows Scrooge a future in which he dies alone, unloved and unmourned. The production even uses much of Dickens’ rhetoric, jarringly alerting us to the fact that A Christmas Carol contained language sufficiently over the top to qualify as commedia.
And yet…there is so much more. There is, to begin with, wit. Adapter and director Matthew R. Wilson has mined the story for its absurdities and contradictions, with a sharp eye toward bringing them into the present day. For example, when the Ghost of Christmas Present notes that he makes a special effort to provide Christmas for the poor because they are most in need of it, Scrooge mutters about the “redistribution of mirth.”
Reisman delivers the line as though it were improvised, which highlights the second virtue of A Commedia Christmas Carol – its continuity of energy. Every line tumbles out of these characters as though made up on the spot. Of course, that’s the objective of all good theater, but it is particularly difficult in doing an iconic show like A Christmas Carol, which is at least as much monument as play. Only when the lines are given readings which seem original, fresh and spontaneous can the story rise above its own legend. The story rises here.
Which brings us to A Commedia Christmas Carol’s third great virtue: Reisman’s performance as Scrooge. The journey Dickens took Scrooge on started in despicable curmudgeondom and moved through regret and fear to his conversion moment, when he buys a goose for the Cratchit family. But we never get a chance to like him, and I can’t help but think that much of the story’s popularity is due to watching a crotchety old man get his comeuppance.
But Reisman’s Scrooge is nimble, powerful, very funny and extraordinarily brave; he ignores the phantoms swirling in his bedroom (a common affliction of the elderly) and when the long-dead Marley appears in his living room, he talks to him as an equal. Reisman’s Scrooge breaks the fourth wall with ease and naturalness, and thus makes the audience his friend. On the night I saw the production he improvised so much, and so well, that he might have merited a writing credit. There was a particular moment when the sound cues misfired, and Reisman played off that for the rest of the night.
In singling out Reisman I do not mean to overlook the significant roles that other theater artists played in making this show such a smashing success. In particular, the loose-limbed Santner’s antic physical comedy somehow makes Cratchit a little less pathetic than Dickens made him out to be; it gives the character a resilience that such a man in 19th-century London would have to have had not to turn to bitterness or despair.
A Commedia Christmas Carol
Closes December 23, 2012
800 Florida Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Garner – one of Washington’s most tragically underutilized actors – and Mulford each take on six roles, with great separation of character; Garner has a particularly memorable onstage transformation from the impeccably upper-class Clara to the Cockney Mrs. Cratchit.
Herman is great as the self-involved Freddie. And Jesse Terrill – whose musicianship is one of Washington’s great theatrical assets – has cooked up some fine music to go with the play. These wonderful artists and their work on stage more than make up for the production’s only weak moment, its misguided decision to tell most of the Christmas-yet-to-come story through video projections which were difficult to see and, although loud, difficult to understand.
In short, this fast, funny and honest playing of the time-honored story somehow de-ossifies it, and makes it possible to believe the wisdom behind Dickens’ conceit: that even though we violate the spirit of Christmas the rest of the year, it is still possible to have a redemptive moment in which discover the power of open-hearted love.
When Scrooge, learning ASL from Tiny Tim (the fine Gallaudet student actor Michael Sprouse), haltingly signs “God bless us, every one!” by making a small circle with his right hand to take in the Cratchit family, Tiny Tim corrects him by making a huge circle with his left, to take in the entire world, and –
hey! Stop that! There’s no crying in Christmas!
Recommended for everyone older than 8 years old.
A Commedia Christmas Carol. Adapted by Matthew R. Wilson from the novella by Charles Dickens. Directed by Matthew R. Wilson. Featuring Marianna Devenow, Sandra Mae Frank, Julie Garner, Tyler Herman, Toby Mulford,
Joel David Santner, Paul Reisman, Michael Sprouse, and Jessica Willoughby.
Scenic Design by Ethan Sinnott. Costume Design by Denise Umland. Lighting Design by Andrew F. Griffin. Music Composed by Jesse Terrill. Sound Design by Thomas Sowers. Projections by Joel David Santner . Props by Kristen Pilgrim. and Masks by Tara Cariaso at Waxing Moon Masks.
Sign Consultant/Interpreter: Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder. Assistant Director: Rachel Spicknall Mulford. Stage Manager: Kirsten Parker. ASM & Wardrobe Supervisor: Kathryn Dooley. Production Assistant/Deck Manager: Victoria LeBlanc.
Deck Crew: Amanda Biskupiak. Technical Director: Jacob Fisher. Assistant Technical Director: Kristopher Davis. Master Electrician: Casey Analco. Production Manager: Sarah Conte. Producer: Sarah Bartlett Wilson for Faction of Fools. Reviewed by Tim Treanor