By Chad Nance
The cast is pitch perfect, the sets are stunning and inventive, and the multi-media presentation dazzles in what has to be one of the best gifts any theater company has given the people of Winston-Salem this or any year. Triad Stage’s 2014 production of Charles Dickens; “A Christmas Carol” is a moving and entertaining night at the theater. Preston Lane (Triad Stage co-founder and current artistic director) has used Dickens’ archetypal tale and powerful language in order to create something wholly original timeless, and contemporarily relevant. Blending ancient Christmas carols that had become newly popular just when Dickens’ novella was released, Lane has created a work of great intelligence and understanding of Dickens’ cultural and literary importance. At the same time, Lane has managed to hold tightly to what makes the story of Ebenezer Scrooge echo down through the ages.
The Christmas holiday, as it is celebrated in Western countries in the 21st Century, owes more to the work of Englishmen Charles Dickens, Davies Gilbert, and William Sandy than it does to ancient Christian traditions. The holiday had long fallen out of favor or become an overly somber acknowledgement of the traditional birth of Christ married to pagan traditions such as the December date and the German affectation of bringing a tree into the house. All of that changed in 1843 when Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was published and helped bring Christmas as we know and enjoy it to the masses. Dickens’ humanitarian, philosophical approach to Christmas became known academically as his “Carol Philosophy” and was based more on egalitarian ideas like caring for those less fortunate and focusing one’s life on humanity at large than it did religious traditions.
Dicken’s originally released his novella at a time of great prosperity in England- a prosperity that had also been accompanied by serious income disparity that created a vast underclass in England and America. An underclass whose suffering and exploitation by the new industrialists was pervasive, cruel, and in the end inhuman. One of Dickens’ literary reactions to this ugly reality was to try and encourage the celebrating of Christmas as an almost secular moment for all of mankind to reach out to their neighbors and those less fortunate in order to help bring them comfort.
Triad Stage’s “A Christmas Carol” understands Dickens and understands the author’s own personal guiding light. The production design by UNCSA’s John Coyne is truly a marvel. Rather than labor to recreate Victorian London on the Hanesbrands stage, Coyne reaches ahead to the post-industrial steel work of architects and engineers like Gustave Eiffel who designed both the tower that bears his name as well as major public works projects, and even the interior skeleton of the Statue of Liberty. The steel beam and hot rivet look proves both ominous and evocative while staying out of the way of choreographer Sara Ruth Tourek and director Bryan Conger’s occasionally and delightfully manic blocking and staging. The moving sets and detailed finishes give the impression that the players are working inside of a machine. This harkens back to Dickens’ own take on the industrial revolution that was emptying out the rural country-side and create vast and terrible slums where the factory workers lived in abject squalor trapped in the merciless grip of out of control capitalism.
The lighting, sound, and projection design are impeccable and vital for the full effect. From the subtle details such as Marley’s ghosts’ “processed” voice to the captivating and occasionally frightening special effects, Aaron Porter, David E. Smith, and Nicholas Hussong do yeoman’s work providing just the “pop” cinematic kick that the production requires to frighten, move, and more fundamentally, entertain. There is even subtly for the true literary and film geeks with the inclusions of projections of film director M.A. Wetherell’s 1927 version of “Robinson Crusoe” and footage from “Le Palais des Mille et une nuits” (“The Palace of the Arabian Nights“) by legendary filmmaker Georges Méliès. These clips compliment Coyne’s sets perfectly and the inclusion of these films is an Easter Egg from Charles Dickens’ own childhood and not from “A Christmas Carol”. It is a nice feeling when artists respect the intelligence of their audience.
The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is a heart-warming tale, no doubt. Dickens’ seminal work is also rife with images of despair and human suffering. Preston Lane takes the edge off of the darkness without being condescending by casting child performers to act as a chorus, occasional narrators, and to take company roles in the story as needed. One particularly brilliant use of this approach is how young Shane Hansard is used as a street urchin, Tiny Tim himself, and at a critical juncture in a role that both surprises and resonates deeply with audiences. All of the company roles are cast with young, dynamic performers. The effect of this casting is to make Scrooge himself seem even older, more twisted, and foul before his transformation. Everyone else, such as the Young Scrooge and his nephew Fred (Wilson Bridges) have such a “young” energy that the idea that the Christmas day after Scrooge’s torments is truly a new day where old age and greed are replaced by charity, dynamism, and youth.
The music consist of traditional carols- some ancient and beloved some will be a wonderful surprise. Not only does the seamless integration of the music prove to move the narrative forward it also hearkens back to the time of Dickens in a more fundamental way. Dickens, of course, named the sections of his novella “staves” as if they were, indeed, part of a larger carol. Along with “A Christmas Carol” one of the other contemporary books that spawned the modern celebration of Christmas was Davies Gilbert’s “Some Ancient Christmas Carols” that inspired Dickens and the Western world at the time.
As Scrooge’s tormentors, Madelynn Poulsen and Gwendolyn Jones are captivating in their roles. Poulson’s Christmas Past is never grave and has a natural good-humor that shines through. She seems to never quite be still and that adds a playful, if manic, edge to the performance. Jones, as Christmas Present, towers over Scrooge thanks to a wonderful costume and lights up the room with her tremendous voice that she works lovingly over Dickens’ tremendous and beautiful language and becomes the very soul and conscience of the story.
And this brings us to Scrooge. Like Fitzgerald’s Daisy or Sherlock Holmes, Scrooge has transcended humanity as a human being and become the embodiment of whatever time he is being interpreted in. Andrew Boyer does a graceful job of pushing his work beyond that stifling limitation and creates a Scrooge that is both recognizable, yet wholly his own. Boyer gives the audience the stooped posture from being bent over big, dusty leather ledger books that they have come to expect from Alastair Sim’s seminal performance to George C. Scott’s defining of the role in the 1980’s. Boyer plays his Scrooge as basically a bully. In public he is a blustering and cruel blowhard, but once the apparitions begin to visit he becomes a groveling coward in short order. He does provide the right pathos when Scrooge is confronted with reality of his own life and Boyer’s manic redemption scenes at the end are an expression of true joy and release.
As in Dickens’ novella, time itself plays a major role as the true antagonist of the piece. Dickens very modern, post-Christian concept of life as a finite opportunity to do good makes the encroachments of time and the chiming of the clocks feel aggressive and oppressive in equal measure. Perhaps that is what Lane’s “A Christmas Carol” and Dickens’ original are telling us about Christmas itself. Holidays are fundamentally a way by which human beings build connections with the passing of time and the turning of the seasons. This handsome and thoughtful production reminds us that Christmas is just the last opportunity to reach out and find some human connection and mercy before the coming of the New Year and as Scrooge learned the hard way: waiting for Christmas to be at the business of your fellow man is waiting far too long.
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