Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December, 2006
People who know me will tell you that I am hardly Scrooge-like in my day-to-day life. But when it comes to the barrage of annual productions based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, I am inevitably the sour-faced person on the aisle muttering “Bah, humbug!” under her breath. Tiny Tims from near and far quail at my coming because of my repeated threats to bludgeon them to death with their crutches before they can warble out their immortal “God bless us, every one.” There is just something about this story that connects with millions of people, and not with me.
But I have to say that I actually enjoyed myself at the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of A Christmas Carol and that is high praise indeed. This is a new version adapted from Dickens by Eric Hill, who also appears as Ebenezer Scrooge and has co-directed with E. Gray Simons III. In the press release Hill claims a life-long affinity for and association with this beloved story, including several performances as Scrooge during his decade-long tenure as artistic director at Stage West in Springfield, Massachusetts, a city where Dickens himself gave a reading of A Christmas Carol in 1868.
Key to the success of this production is the cracker-jack design team: Carl Sprague, sets; Matthew E. Adelson, lights; Jessica Risser-Milne, costumes; and J Hagenbuckle, sound. From the moment you enter the Unicorn Theatre you are enveloped in the grey shroud of Dickensian London in the dark depths of winter. Before the action begins fully costumed performers are roaming the house, so the costumes must stand up to very close scrutiny. Then the evening begins with the Here We Come A-Wassailing. Throughout the play the cast sings snatches of Christmas carols, although this is no musical, all of them distinctly British and appropriate to the period.
Although the reference is to another century and culture completely, live musical accompaniment is provided throughout by a fiddler on the roof. Music director and performer Naya Chang sits perched atop Sprague’s London skyline playing the violin and various percussion instruments in an improvised score that flows seamlessly with Hagenbuckle’s sound design and the action on the stage. Chang, who also plays the silent role of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is a beautiful and talented young woman whose presence and musical ability really moves this production from the realm of the predictable to the higher reaches of artistry.
Sprague’s set gives a solemn sense of the London streets and doorways around the edges while smaller set pieces are rolled into the center by the performers to create the many changes in time and place required by the play. Scrooge’s large, heavily curtained four-poster bed is the largest set piece, and it proves the vessel for many surprises. While all the “special effects” are very professionally done, they are also kept relatively simple, which adds great wonder to their specialness.
I was especially impressed that the directors and designers were able to surprise me with the entrances of the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Morgan Cox) and Christmas Present (Anthony Mark Stockard). I mean, they entered right on cue and it was perfectly plain how they got there, and I still gasped, as did most of the rest of the crowd, both times. In essence both entrances were about as surprising as finding mail in your mailbox, so it takes a special kind of theatrical magic to make the completely expected unexpected and exciting.
Since I am not a Scrooge fan the fact that I found Hill’s embodiment of the role a little too cute and too quick to reform is probably not important. I will leave dissection of character to people with more affinity for the story as a whole. But I did find the large prosthetic nose that Hill wore in the role off-putting. It was a nose of truly Halloween-witchy proportions and shape (he is not wearing it in the photo you see on the posters but you can see it clearly in many of he company’s publicity stills). Growing up with such a nose might well warp a personality, and yet no effort is made to give Ricky Formeyer, who plays Scrooge as a young man, a similar proboscis. I know that our noses continue to grow throughout our lives, but rarely to such an alarming extent.
An able ensemble cast of 22 plays all the parts. Ten of them are graduate students in the theater department at Brandeis University, which Hill chairs, and several more are BTF acting interns. Local children are involved too, ranging from Tiny Tim (Pittsfield fourth-grader Nate Stump) to Martha Cratchit (Lee High senior Lauren Heeren) and Dick Wilkins (Monument Mountain senior Johnny Segalla), and four, count ‘em, four members of the Stanton family of Stockbridge: Rider, 9, Jahna, 11, Cooper, 13, and Tyler, 14.
Few people realize the disrepute into which Christmas in Britain had fallen by the time Dickens penned A Christmas Carol in 1834. It is not news that many British and European holiday traditions are based much more on ancient practices than on any theology of the Christian church, and this mid-winter revelry had reached such a fever pitch during the Middle Ages and renaissance that when the Protestant Reformation began Christmas celebrations were seriously squelched, if not banned altogether, because there was no scriptural basis for celebrating Christ’s birth. Many of the carols used in this production date back into the days of more earth-based celebrations with the wassailing traditions and the veneration of the holly and the ivy and other evergreen plants.
Dickens’ genius was in reinventing Christmas as the secular/commercial home-based holiday we know today. There are a few religious references in A Christmas Carol but the central message is that an open heart and an open wallet are the essential ingredients in keeping a Merry Christmas. This took Christmas out of the church and placed it in the home and in the stores. Everyone, including the church, benefited from this version of the holiday. Even the churches that have evolved from the Puritanical traditions which banned Christmas, many of which still do not hold services on Christmas Day, do a booming business on Christmas Eve.
A Christmas Carol was a fabulous popular and successful book for Dickens, who was already a well-established and popular author, and he followed it with four more Christmas novellas – The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848) – all espousing what he came to call his “Carol Philosophy” – “cheerful views, sharp anatomisation of humbug, jolly good temper . . . and a vein of glowing, hearty, generous, mirthful, beaming reference in everything to Home, and Fireside” – but none matched the popularity of this first effort.
The BTF is hinting that A Christmas Carol will become and annual December offering as they move towards more year-round programming. It is not clear whether next year’s production will be substantially the same as this, or whether the story will be re-imagined from year to year. I hope not because this version, which runs about 90 minutes with an intermission, seems to me just about enough Christmas Carol for one sitting. Even Dickens’ own prompt copy shows that he winnowed his public readings of the tale down to about an hour and a half, and that was for a 19th century audience who had attention spans not yet whittled away by television and video games.
A Christmas Carol runs through December 23 in the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs 90 minutes with one intermission. I know people love to take children to this show, but please remember that it is essentially a ghost story and may be scary for little ones.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006