Just when my eyes are about to glaze over at the thought of another holiday production of Charles Dickens' ghostly story of redemption, along comes The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's splendid production of A Christmas Carol.
With no music other than Christmas carols, no special effects but fog and a giant puppet, and no words other than those penned by Dickens himself, Director Bonnie J. Monte has taken Neil Bartlett's adaptation of the old chestnut and run with it. It helps that she's pulled out some of STNJ's biggest guns, with eight actors (mostly veterans and a couple of newbies) playing 50 roles seamlessly and adroitly, while providing sound effects that evoke ticking clocks, scratching quill pens, clinking coins and even a light going on and off!
Adam Miecielica's spare but evocative set—some sliding panels, movable doors and jambs, and a huge clock overhead—make for easy scene changes (helped by a raft of roll-on props) and remind us of the passage of time, an idea central to the story. The action covers Christmases Past, Present and Future, all in a single night. Michael Giannitti's m lighting, Hugh Hanson's handsome costumes and Rich Dionne's ever-present, ghostly sound design really transport the audience to Industrial Revolution London, complete with fog, ice and snow.
As the central character, Ebenezer Scrooge, Philip Goodwin (right) is nastiness personified but never caricatured. He doesn't say, "Bah, humbug!" very much, but the "Bah" he spits out repetitively has the sharpness of a bullet. In contrast to his nephew Fred's conviviality, Scrooge's mean-spiritedness is all the more apparent, but his transformation as the specters appear is believable because he has given us a glimpse of how lonely this old man really is.
The other eight actors take on a myriad of roles. The versatile Ames Adamson seems to be everywhere, from a portly Christmas Present to a Turkey! John Ahlin's Mr. Fezziwig is hilariously expansive (in both girth and spirit. Clark Carmichael (left, with Susan Maris) exudes Fred’s effusive holiday cheer and lets us see the young Scrooge that used to be so attractive. Gregory Jackson reprises his role as a heart-breaking Bob Cratchit (he played it in the 2007 production), and Erin Partin (right), another performer in that version, is enchanting as Christmas Past, swathed head to toe in white chiffon and wielding what appears to be a star to summon up sad scenes from Scrooge's youth. Susan Maris shines as Scrooge's fiancée Bell, making his neglect of her all the more poignant. As Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchit, Tina Stafford brings a warmth to the chilly winter environment. Cameron Berner, Erica Knight and Blake Pfeil adeptly play a variety of minor roles. The latter is especially delightful giving voice to a light bulb being turned on and off!
For theatergoers who associate Christmas with Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Martha Stewart and shopping, it may come as a bit of a surprise to be reminded that A Christmas Carol is actually a ghost story, and a scary one at that. Yet despite its scarier aspects—most notably the appearance of ghostly spirits and the projected death of Tiny Tim—A Christmas Carol is great family entertainment (although perhaps not for the little ones). And don't forget, the story is a cautionary tale of what industrialization can do to those who are less well off, a frequent theme in Dickens' work.
At a time when the poverty rate is rising in the United States and more people find themselves out of work and lacking access to health care, A Christmas Carol speaks to modern audiences. And although the story seems to have little to do with the original Christmas, its twin themes of redemption and hope are most appropriate to the holiday season—whatever your religious persuasion.
Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 PM and Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM, select Thursdays and Fridays at 2 PM. There are no performances on December 24 and 25. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Main Stage is located at 36 Madison Avenue (Route 124) on the Drew University campus in Madison. Parking is free. Wheelchair seating and transfer seating is available. Braille and large print programs and infrared listening devices are available free of charge. Some performances are audio described, captioned and sign-language interpreted. Contact the theater for more information. Call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit online at www.ShakespeareNJ.org
Photos: ©Gerry Goodstein