Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Christmas Carol in Prose Being A Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens

By Joe Straw

L - R Troy Dunn, Arlo Petty, and Julianna Robinson
A homeless black woman with untethered eyes occasionally walks down the center of my street, carrying her life in a backpack, treading carefully, one small struggling step at a time moving toward an unknown physical destination.

But on this evening, with the weight of the day on me, moments beyond sunset, I looked up at the moon, and, then glanced down the street; there, I noticed a shadow sitting on the sidewalk, a dark disconsolate asomatous figure that appeared to levitate above the cold and insincere concrete. 

This sexless figure was blackened, backlit by the streetlight, motionless in the middle of the sidewalk, legs crossed, yoga style, an indistinguishable faceless shadow, hardly moving, and as I think about the play, I attribute the image to an “undigested bit of beef” or an “underdone potato”.

Curiosity got the better of me, though, but not so much that I called out or investigated, having come across ghostly figures in the past.  Try as hard as I might, I could not tell if the silhouette was a man or the homeless woman. 

I moved to the comfort of my home steps and when I opened the front door, inquisitiveness beckoned. I turned to look again and the shadow was gone. – Narrator

The way Eric Bloom announced the title made sense; it just rolled off the tip of his tongue but it confused me – A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. This is a slightly elongated title of “A Christmas Carol”.  One might suggest the play (in prose form) is actually an adaptation of the book.

Santa Monica Repertory Theater presents A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens directed by Jen Bloom through December 18, 2016.

Miles Memorial Playhouse is an excellent venue for holding the mansuetude of A Christmas Carol, a book that caresses and warms even the harshest of souls.

In reviewing, I told myself that I would not be harsh, that I would wrap myself with my woolen scarf, place it over my mouth if need be, and not utter grumblings of a disagreeable nature.  Grumpy was not on my list of adjectives this night.

And, there are times when it is better to footle, if only to let my imagination run spiritedly!  And with that,  I will give you what I heard and what I imagined I saw.  

“There is no doubt that Marley was dead.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” – Dickens

Poor Ebenezer Scrooge (Troy Dunn) – a fragmented man who has lost touch with all of humanity, on this Christmas Eve.  Not lost in one fell swoop, mind you, but lost over the course of time, the elements, and the circumstances of his life, lonely as it were.

Scrooge sits at his desk counting money and adding figures for his firm – Scrooge and Marley – Marley being the absentee owner – having died seven years ago - Christmas Eve - on this very night.

Scrooge, concerned with every coin, pays scant attention to his nephew, Fred (Eric Bloom), who interrupts Scrooge in his cold and unpleasant office.  Fred, in great spirits, implores his Uncle Scrooge to attend his Christmas party and meet the woman he is madly in love with, his wife Belle (Yael Berkovich), but Scrooge will have none of it.

“…keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” – Scrooge

“Keep it! But you don’t keep it.” - Fred

“Let me leave it alone, then.” – Scrooge

Scrooge dismisses Fred with hardly a second thought to return to his solitude.

Moments later, two attractive women enter to solicit funds for the desperately poor and the overtly soiled.  One (Tanya White) is experienced while the other (Julianna Robinson) has very little training and is pushed into much-needed practice of asking for “slight provision for the poor and destitute”. .  

“Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses?  Are they still in operation?” – Scrooge

Not in the position to argue, the ladies make a hasty retreat.  Prison and workhouses rings a bell to delicate ears and those words will haunt Scrooge in the coming night.   

Watching and working at the warmth of the photocopying machine stands Bob Cratchit (Mike Nedzwecki) who moves himself to gather a modicum of warmth and to garner enough courage to ask Scrooge for Christmas day off.  Something he’s repeated for oh-so-many years! All because Cratchit wants to be with Mrs. Cratchit (Julianna Robinson), Tiny Tim (Arlo Petty), and all the assorted Cratchits – if it’s convenient.

“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December! But I suppose you must have the whole day.  Be here all the earlier next morning.” - Scrooge

In a facetious mood, Scrooge leaves the office but suddenly feels the weight of time and loneliness, his shoulder are hunched, and he walks a stiffened gait through the piercing cold and deserted impious English streets. He is alone, and no one comes near just to greet him.  It’s as if he had the plague.

Arriving home and turning the key, Scrooge perceives Jacob Marley (Bart Petty), a disfigured face shadow, as the knocker in the door. Scrooge thinks nothing of the image - this once being home to Marley – but now it is his refuge – a miserable hovel – a place with little fixtures, a table which doubles as a bed, a chair, dirty bed curtains – sparse furnishing for a man who has everything, and nothing.

Certainly, seeing Marley was something to think about after seven years. One imagines the hairs on the back of his neck standing straight up and chills running egregiously down his trembling spine.

Rather than having unexpected guests, (better to be safe than sorry) Scrooge locks the doors not once, not twice, but three times.  Still, Scrooge thought of Marley, shivering as the night got colder.  The gruel he made from his minimal fire, got thick and cold. Indeed, there was more to come and everyone understood it, including Scrooge.

The darkness from the marginal candles was a cheaper alternative to light, and in that darkness, Scrooge waits for the light of disturbing images that must come. And given the nocturnal quivering on this night this might just be the time to shiver under the comfort of his stale bed coverings.   

Jen Bloom, the director, employs a variety of prodigious theatricals illusions including shadow theatre to make a point of this production and manages to throw all sorts of theatrical devices to keep the play moving at a 90-minute clip. Fezziwig’s party worked to great satisfaction.  But the production needed a stronger core with stronger relationships to tie the characters together. (There I go again.)

The shadows show us things, as they were, part of the idea of the past, a hand gesture, a sword, a finger pointing, numbers, and a lonely candle. But making it all work is something else that I will speak to later.

Thinking outside the box, one might want to come inside the box, out of the cold, and cozy up next to the fire of space and relationships. One idea, with the sword shadows, a young Ebenezer Scrooge reads a book of Ali Baba.  Separated by space, the shadows should dance from young Charles Dicken’s head, and having him near the shadows would presume the images are dancing thoughts.  

I can’t do this, a critique; it is not in my nature to deride A Christmas Carol based on the choices.

There are wonderful performances.  All of the actors have moments that shine in one character or another.  An interesting device employed in this production is the use of various characters acting as the narrator usually reserved for Charles Dickens (Ewan Chung), instead handed off to members of the ensemble. This may have worked better with additional lighting, giving the speakers a light, and the actors in a performing spotlight – e.g., a spotlight highlighting the action.

I can neither praise nor critique the tremulous light vibration that is the frangible workings of Ebenezer Scrooge (Troy Dunn), complete with his human miseries. But, then again, I can’t help myself.   

Troy Dunn employs a powerful voice as well as powerful muttonchops making his character something out of the 1830’s, while almost everyone inhabited the images of various time periods including Tiny Tim (Arlo Petty) who had a backpack with a breathing instrument protruding from it.  Gone was the lame Tiny Tim that I so enjoy.  

Also, Dunn wasn’t connecting to the other actors (on this night), which means there is a lot to overcome. (The show seemed to be moving at breakneck speed, without some actors, finding the moment to relate and establish a strong relationship). Gone were Scrooge’s monetary wicked doctrine, his behavior from being isolated, and his moral nihilism. He didn’t change much and that’s not what we want from our Scrooge. (I can’t believe I did it again!) 

The ghosts did not provide the ghastly intimacy moving Ebenezer in the right direction.   Jacob Marley’s grim exultation did not send Ebenezer fearing the next three days. There is a reason Jacob Marley’s head is wrapped. Because the kerchief is holding his jaw in place, and without it Marley’s jaw would fall to his breast and all of his teeth would fall out. The ghosts did not haunt effectively nor did they convince Ebenezer to change his ways. And you can’t have A Christmas Carol with the catharsis.

Also, the narrator’s perspective was in a constant state of flux and that was thoroughly enjoyable if not entirely effective.  

Still there are choice words for the things that did go right.  And those choice words belong to the actors.

Yael Berkovich is Belle and other ensemble characters.  She is a wonderful actor and brings much to the overall feel of the show.

Eric Bloom is Fred and is very natural on stage.  One would have preferred a Fred who was a little more cheerful trying to convince his uncle to visit him and to never give up on that objective.

Ewan Chung plays Charles Dickens and Master Peter Cratchit and was also in a fine period piece costume.

One also enjoys the play-making of Sara Mayer as Fan.  She has a grand presence on stage and is extremely enjoyable in the quiet moments on stage.

Mike Nedzwecki plays Bob Cratchit, and he is an actor who gets it, plays the moment, and is true to his objective.  He is especially true to the task when he says “Christmas Day” with the assorted Cratchits all around him. Nedzwecki, waits for that moment, and wow, this is a solid moment in this play.  Nedzwecki is a wonderful actor.

Arlo Petty does a nice turn as Tiny Tim and a member of the ensemble.

Bart Petty is also a member of the ensemble and Marley, the first ghost, who needs to scare the wits out of Scrooge.  This is a role in which an actor can find innumerable choices and there is more to add with this performance.

Juliana Robinson has a lot going on as Mrs. Cratchit and the other various roles in the ensemble.  Each role is different and Robinson adds a slight quirkiness to each character. Robinson is wonderful to watch on stage.

L - R Tanya White, Barbara Urich and Julianna Robinson

Barbara Urich is the Ghost of Christmas Present and does a fine job.  Her eyes, that radiance, projects well beyond the seats, and her quiet moments are particularly enjoyable.  Notwithstanding, a wonderful job. 

Tanya White was particularly enjoyable as the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Pleasant is a word for this ghost until she drives the point home. White has a wonderful smile and has a very natural presence on stage.

Ben Landmesser and Sara Patterson are understudies and did not appear the night I was there.

Run! Run!  And take a Tiny Tim fan! You’ll have much to talk about on your way home.

Other members of this delight crew are as follows:

Ben Landmesser – Assistant Director
Adrienne Johnson-Lister – Production Stage Manager
Leslie K. Gray – Scenic and Shadows Design
Brandon Baruch – Lighting Design
Maddie Keller – Costume Design
David McKeever – Sound Design
John Mulhern – Associate Producer/Technical Director
David & Choy Publicity, Niki Blumberg – Publicity
Damla Coskun – Assistant Stage Manager
Eric Bloom, Bart Petty, Adrienne Johnson-Lister, Sarah Gurfield, - Co Producers
Sean Kohnen – Production Photos
Yael Berkovich – Program Layout Design
Linda Larson – House Manager

Contact Information
ticket or show information:
general inquiries:

To purchase tickets by phone: (844) Hum-Bugg (486-2844)

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