Sunday, December 2, 2012

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Spoiler alert! Charles Dickens, one of the world's most renowned storytellers, was also an accomplished amateur magician -- who knew?! So, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of A Christmas Carol has a few on-stage "how did they do that?" tricks up its sleeves; it also has Dickens as its narrator who slips in and out of a number of minor roles in the person of actor Wynn Harmon.

Though narrative in place of dramatic action is risky business at best, hearing Dickens' prose is essential for audiences to appreciate the full flavor of his familiar Christmas classic, and while many can recite verbatim from the characters' quotable lines -- from "Bah, humbug!" to "God bless us, every one!" -- Mr. Harmon's nuanced delivery of the descriptive richness of the novel helps transport us to a distant time and place, and infuse us with just the right amount of Christmas sentiment.

Phil Monat's visually stunning sets and Elizabeth Novak's character-driven period costumes [and authentic replicas of the novel's ghostly apparitions] complete the picture.

So, while Mr. Sherman's production is traditional in most ways, his cuts and additions [including some diverting period songs] tell the story in an efficient two hours that hardly afford time for actors to be subtle in developing their characters or give audiences time to register the impact of its many short scenes before moving on to the next episode; and yet it seems to lag in a couple of them, most notably in a lengthy quibbling over the spoils that Mrs. Dilber brings to Old Joe, no fault to the actors.

None of this diminishes the impact of Sherman's vision for A Christmas Carol. -- Intact are the powerful presence of Brik Berkes as the ghost of Jacob Marley, a seven-year dead business partner who sets Scrooge [Rodney Clark] on his overnight reclamation from malicious ogre to giddy schoolboy in the finale, and the combined instructions of the ghosts of Christmases Past [Jillian Walker], Present [James Bowen], and Yet-to-Come [a mysterious non-speaking spectre].

Here too are Paul Hebron and Diana Van Fossen as the unabashedly gregarious Fezziwigs, Scrooge's persistently hopeful nephew Fred [Seth Rettberg], and Alice Sherman as Scrooge's one-time fiancee Belle, whose captivating lullaby showcases this actress's rich singing voice.

Of course, there is the Cratchit family, whose dependence on Scrooge is key to their survival. The audience's collective hearts come close to breaking through the honest simplicity of Billy Sharpe and Greta Lambert as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, as they face their own poverty with determined faith in the goodness of mankind, love of family, and the prospect of losing their crippled son, Tiny Tim [Liam South is an ideal waif, following his older brother Crispin in playing the role at ASF].

But, it all comes down to Scrooge, doesn't it? Rodney Clark reprises the role, finding new ways to inhabit the penny-pinching miser's gradual decision to change into a man who "knew how to keep Christmas well" and be a model for us all. -- At the start, he is a villain deserving our ire, but he takes us along on his journey of self-discovery that invites us to assess our own beliefs and behaviors. Mr. Clark allows us to experience his changes of heart as he wishes he could have a word with his clerk, Bob Cratchit, or give a street urchin a coin, or mend the broken relationship with his nephew Fred. So when Christmas Day dawns and he sets about to make amends with one and all, we share his complete overwhelming joy, his childlike innocence, and his decision to "honor Christmas with all my heart". Lessons for everyone, and a fine way to introduce the Christmas season.