A Cold Christmas for this "Christmas Carol"





12-13-11

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.


A Christmas Carol
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Madison, N.J.

In one word, this unique version of Charles Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey is dark.  Very dark.

Playwright Neil Bartlett has adapted Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the Shakespeare Theater and in doing so has changed its look.  It is still the story of the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge and the attempted salvation of lovable little Tiny Tim, but my, does it wallow in darkness.

The story about the fiscally-challenged Scrooge, a mean old codger hated by everyone who knows him in mid-nineteenth century London, is familiar to all.  On Christmas Eve, the irascible Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who show him Christmas past, present and future.  The journey with the ghosts (a rather scary trio, by the way) enables him to see the man he was, and lost, and the man, or ogre, he has become.

In this version that opened over the weekend, though, everything is quite somber.  The play starts out in Scrooge’s office, where Bob Crachit toils alongside two other young impoverished clerks in an effort to make a decent salary to take care of his ever growing family and the crippled and thoroughly adorable Tiny Tim.

What catches your eye in this production is not just that the sets are minimalist, but that there is a dreary, foreboding look to everything.  The lighting is dark, even in broad daylight, the ghosts pirouette in the dark, the Crachits have dinner in the dark and Scrooge’s bedroom is badly lit.  The streets are dark, the sets dark, and even the party at Fezziwig’s in Christmas past is dark.  Fezziwig’s party, a colorful, jubilant celebration in most versions of the play, is colorless and quiet.  I suppose the darkness is supposed to symbolize the maudlin story, but this is not just a bit dark—it’s a five-state power outage.

The key to this play is Scrooge, a colorful character no matter how you look at him.  Here, you have no feeling for old Scrooge.  As played by Philip Goodwin, he is a humorless and personality-free drone who slumps through the day at his office and the visits from the ghosts.  Even at the end of the play, following his “makeover,” Scrooge isn’t very happy.  If this guy won the power ball lottery today he wouldn’t be happy.  He walks through the play like he’s looking at it through a store window.

The scrappy Crachit family, which normally has an important role in any production of this drama, is downplayed and the dad, Bob, really the secondary lead in the play, is buried in Bartlett’s revived script.  The members of his family have little to say or do.

Worse, there is absolutely nothing about the glorious history of London and England in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Dickens wrote all of his books and managed his newspapers.  All productions of A Christmas Carol, at the very least, have a street set with London avenues that reflect what the town looked like back then and gave the audience a sense of its architecture.  Most productions feature street vendors and people buying goods in street markets, giving the director a chance to give the audience a glimpse of city life 150 years ago.  Here, just about the only sense of history you have are the costumes, that could have been worn in a saloon in the American West in that era as well as London.

Director Bonnie Monte, who is also the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater, certainly tries hard to wring the most out of Bartlett’s script.  The hard-working cast gets good notices for their work, too.  They need to do all they can, together, to get around Bartlett’s puzzling and plodding new version of the classic story.

Some of the better performers in the play are Gregory Jackson as Bob Crachit, Blake Pfeil as Tiny Tim, Tina Stafford as Mrs. Crachit and John Ahlin as Fezziwig.

A Christmas Carol is a holiday classic and a solid play about nineteenth century British history.  Nearly half the large regional theaters in America stage it.  People see it as kids and then, when they grow up, they bring their own kids to see it.  The Shakespeare Theater needs a better version of A Christmas Carol than this one.  There is no holiday cheer here.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Sets: Adam Miecielica, Costumes: Hugh Hanson, Lighting: Michael Giannitti, Sound: Rich Dionne. The play is directed by Bonnie Monte.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwis@njcu.edu.


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