Sunday, November 30, 2014

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

It's magic time again at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Geoffrey Sherman's recently revised adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol comes replete with Paul Wonsek's stunning Victorian Era sets, Elizabeth Novak's lush period costumes, numerous special effects and actual magic tricks on stage, and of course the magic of Dickens's novella showing the reclamation of its protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge [Rodney Clark reprising the role] from a mean-spirited miser to a man who "keeps Christmas in his heart" all year long.

Narrated by Charles Dickens himself [Wynn Harmon, who plays two other roles as well], Mr. Sherman's text preserves much of the book's familiar descriptions and plot elements that transition to dramatized scenes explicating Scrooge's magical overnight journey into his past, present, and future that lead to his final salvation.

Compressed into a mere two hours, director Diana Van Fossen's production never seems rushed, though several entertaining diversions in the script -- Dickens's magic tricks done with aplomb by Mr. Harmon (an accomplished prestidigitator), a "Cat Duet" cunningly executed by Alice Sherman and Betsey Helmer, an extended haggling over Scrooge's belongings by pawnbroker Old Joe [Paul Hopper] and housekeeper Mrs. Dilber [Toni DiBuono] -- leave less time to absorb the strategic moments in Scrooge's life that are presented so quickly that they are hardly noticed.

Yet the magic remains. -- From the onset, it is clear that Mr. Clark's Scrooge is nastier than ever at the beginning ( "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" who dismisses Christmas to one and all as "humbug") and in need of drastic change; and his seven-years dead business partner Jacob Marley pays him a ghostly visit on Christmas Eve. Inexplicably, Marley's voice is heard early on, and a key moment when his face magically appears on Scrooge's door-knocker is so quick that it barely registers; but when he magically arrives in the person of Brik Berkes, the story begins in earnest. Mr. Berkes appears to relish the part as he offers Scrooge a way out through the visitations of three more ghosts.

Together, the Ghosts of Christmas Past [Metushaleme Dary is even-headed and firm] and Christmas Present [James Bowen is grandiloquent and mischievous] help Scrooge in tracking his life from boyhood on: his lonely school days saved through a visit from his sister Fan [Jessica G. Smith] who is the mother of his only nephew Fred [Seth Rettberg], to his youthful love for Belle [Alice Sherman] that is doomed by his greed, to the unappreciated beneficence of Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig [spirited performances by Mr. Hopper and Ms. DiBuono], and the indomitable spirit of the Cratchit family.

Central to the plot, the Cratchits show by example that generosity of spirit and love of family make them richer than even the wealthiest of men. Scrooge's office clerk Bob [a sensitive Billy Sharpe] and Mrs. Cratchit [Jennifer Barnhart as his no nonsense practical help-mate] are raising a family on Bob's meagre wages. The older children -- Peter [Reese Lynch] and Martha [MaryKathryn Samelson] work to help pay the bills, while the younger ones  -- Belinda [Asia Watson] and crippled Tiny Tim [Charlie Hill] help around the house. And their devotion to one another and their belief in the essential goodness of mankind transcends their poverty and Tiny Tim's deteriorating health.

When the huge and sinister presence of the Ghost of Christmas Future [S. Lewis Feemster's non-speaking part] allows Scrooge to conclude that without a change of heart and behavior his legacy will be worthless, the story comes full circle.

Emerging on Christmas morning a changed man, Mr. Clark's transformation is complete. He has been struggling all the way and now makes amends for years of meanness: he gives money to the poor, accepts at last Fred's dinner invitation, and makes peace with his clerk Bob Cratchit.

It's all over before you know it. Dickens, Mr. Sherman, Ms. Van Fossen and her magical company have brought us magically along to Scrooge's infectious merriment, and to Tiny Tim's innocently perfect "God bless us, every one."