Sunday, November 26, 2017

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

It's official. The Christmas theatre season is underway with the opening of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's perennial treat: A Christmas Carol. [There are several others underway at community and university theatres across the River Region...stay tuned.]

The Charles Dickens classic stars Rodney Clark as miserly Ebenezer Scrooge whose miraculous transformation happens over the course of one enchanted night in the company of the Ghosts of Christmas Past [Lilly Wilton], Present [James Bowen], and Future [Woodrow Proctor]. Instigated by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley [Brik Berkes], Scrooge goes on a journey that allows him to reflect on the mistakes of his past, the reality of his present situation, and the indeterminate future which he alone can redeem through compassion and generosity.

The story is narrated by Charles Dickens himself [David Schmittou], an amateur magician with several sleight if hand tricks on display, who also takes on a number of supporting roles in the story. In fact, virtually every actor other than Mr. Clark plays a number of roles, so that the 25-strong ensemble appears to be much larger.

Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation has been featured a number of times at ASF, each iteration with its own stamp. Nancy Rominger directs this year, and has re-distributed some of the actors' roles, tweaked several moments, and scaled down the text to play in under two hours including an intermission. The deliberate exposition in Act I is important to establish plot, theme, and character; but later on, much of the action seems rushed, important moments flashing by so quickly they barely register. Yet, it is still a visual delight with Elizabeth Novak's glorious costumes and Paul Wonsek's Victorian inspired sets, complete with their own magic -- pyrotechnics, moving parts, trap doors and smoke -- all in the service of Scrooge's reclamation from self-imposed isolation from the rest of mankind to a man who intends to keep Christmas in his heart every day of the year. Audiences get caught up in ASF's adroit mixture of story and spectacle, novelty songs and traditional Christmas carols under Joel Jones's musical direction.

When we first see him, Mr. Clarks' Scrooge is so earnestly nasty that we see he has a long way to go. He berates his hard-working clerk Bob Cratchitt [Billy Sharpe] and threatens to fire him on Christmas Eve; dismisses the Charity Man's [James Bowen] request for a donation to help the poor, suggesting that the prisons and workhouses meet their needs and that "if they would rather die" than go there they should do it and "decrease the surplus population"; and derides his nephew Fred's [Seth Andrew Bridges] undaunted good humor and well intentioned Christmas greetings with a resounding "Bah, humbug!" on the Christmas Season. -- His words will come back on him with a vengeance later.

Once Marley sets things in motion with a warning that without the intervention of the other three ghosts he has no chance of avoiding Marley's fate of wandering the world in pain, Scrooge is on his way, unwillingly at first. -- Some events in his past can not be remedied. While his love for Belle [Noelia Antweiler] has been replaced by his love of money, and the generosity of his first employer Mr. Fezziwig [Mr. Schmittou] and Mrs. Fezziwig [Fredena J. Williams] can never be repaid, Scrooge's guilt weighs heavily.

But two persistent issues cry out for resolution: to be reconciled with his nephew, and to help Bob Cratchitt with a living wage to support Mrs. Cratchitt [Jacqueline Petroccia] and their family and provide the means to find a cure for Cratchitt's crippled son Tiny Tim [Matthew Cramer on opening night].

The ghosts have shown Scrooge his past and present, and he has been moved to change but does not know how. He fears the Ghost of Christmas Future more than the others; when he is shown the results of his behavior, and receives no answer to whether these are things that "will be or might be", he awakens on Christmas morning a changed man. -- Mr. Clark's irrepressible giddiness and delight in a world of new possibilities is infectious. He makes good on his desire to help the Cratchitt family and is reunited with Fred.

With a full heart shared with the ASF audience, Scrooge is a reclaimed man carrying Tiny Tim on his shoulders; as the boy exclaims "God bless us, every one!" we can't help but leave the theatre with our own full hearts and concern for our fellows.