A couple years ago, I received a fabulous book as a gift: In You've Got to Read This, contemporary writers introduce a short story that grabbed them and demanded that they urge others to read it. Over the year, my girlfriend and I read them all. Looking back, one of the most intriguing choices came from novelist John Irving. Rather than unearthing a hidden author or highlighting a contemporary gem, as some others did, he plucked an old, familiar chestnut: Dickens' A Christmas Carol. As he argues in his introduction, we all know the story -- or think we do --but have most of us ever sat down and read the thing?
TheatreWorks' nearly word-for-word Christmas Carol, as adapted and directed by Murray Ross, may be the theatrical equivalent of Irving's suggestion. It's so solidly tied with the thick London ropes of Dickens' 19th-century sentences that UCCS' Dwire Theater might as well have been sitting along the grimy Thames. Far above what Irving calls the "countless amateur theatrical events which commemorate (and ruin) A Christmas Carol," TheatreWorks employs Dickens' language to offer us pure storytelling -- a winter garden of words, sounds and childlike wonder that haunts our imaginations and grows inside our own heads.
Over the years, TheatreWorks has performed Christmas in several ways, all with the venerable Bob Pinney, including a one-man version alike in tone to Dickens' original readings. This time, Pinney (Scrooge) has a companion, the sprightly Charles Berendt (Everyone Else). Both have a challenging job, and a lot of lines to master (by this weekend, I expect Berendt will be on top of this!), but the artistic decision to scale down has much to recommend it. Clearing Dickens' crowded landscape heightens the dark isolation of Scrooge -- like a scamper through a lonely psychic playground -- while Berendt's presence highlights the antithesis of Scrooge's loneliness: friendship. It's as if a kaleidoscopic Marley visits his old friend in a dream, tenderly and frighteningly pushing him toward others, his "fellow-passengers to the grave."
Intimacy is achieved in many ways: bells, winds and fiddle reels evoke landscapes; a well-placed light on the stage's floor gleams on Marley's ghost-face like a campfire. Add to this the snug contours of Dwire's theater-in-the-round -- accented by the deep brown wooden stage, green pines, and sparkling golden lights hanging from the low ceiling -- and you have an audience that breathes on the same empathic plane with the characters on stage. The most important color in this production, however, may be its cozy, lamp-lit black; in fact, I could hardly "pierce the darkness with my ferret eyes" to see my notebook during the performance.
Reduced to scrawling large, blind notes, I hoped to recall the actors' touches, of which there are many: Pinney's contorted scowls, Berendt's deft, chameleon-like shift of characters, Pinney's bellowing laughter, Berendt's ecstatic jig at old Fezziwig's.
Although Scrooge derives inspiration from the child's world, I must note that based on the mommy-tugging questions of the lad in front of me (humbug!), its verbal level is probably too quick for children under 12. So find a babysitter and come appreciate the professional performances of two wonderful actors, each one of whom is something like the Ghost of Christmas Past: "a strange figure, like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium." Or at least give yourself a gift and read the original Dickens. Then have a merry, generous Christmas!
-- Paul Wilson