If you see but one Christmas play this month, let it be Colin Ryan's tour de force performance in the Actors Shakespeare Company's production of Christmas with Dickens & Dylan at the West Side Theatre in Jersey City. But you'd better hurry; the play closes on Sunday, December 18.
Other theaters may have produced A Christmas Carol and A Child's Christmas in Wales with a full complement of actors, but Ryan manages to bring the words from the page to the stage so evocatively—and convincingly—that we imagine we're seeing a performance by many when, in fact, there's only one man on the stage!
For a literature junkie, there is nothing better than seeing and hearing an author read from his or her works. Of course, in the case of Dickens and Thomas, that's impossible, given that both are dead, lo, these many years. But Colin Ryan gives us the next best thing: a feeling that we are in the presence of both great men, without sounding like a bad impersonation or a caricature.
Using a British accent with a hint of the Welsh musicality, Ryan launches into a recitation of A Child's Christmas in Wales from a 1951 New York City bar stool (much as Thomas was wont to do during his alcohol-soaked later years), talking to the audience as though they are fellow pub-goers. We can hear Thomas’ melodic line as he recounts the winter days with the "snow shawling out of the ground," and boys knocking on doors "mittened on them manfully." The "carol-singing sea" seems to engulf us as Ryan, dressed in a sport jacket, argyle vest, striped shirt and red tie, even gets down on the floor to portray a small boy entranced with the "not so useful" toys like candy and toy soldiers who always retreated. He takes us out caroling with his friends, singing "Old King Wenceslas" at the door to a deserted-looking house, only to hear a "small, dry, eggshell voice" accompanying the group through the keyhole! Without a lot of stage business, we can concentrate on Dylan Thomas' wonderful way with words, metaphors and, of course, alliteration to work its magic on evoking our own Christmas memories.
After a ten-minute intermission, ostensibly to await the arrival of Mr. Charles Dickens on a late train, Ryan rushes in with cape flying, all atremble at this bumpy start to his reading tour of North America—an event that really happened in the 1840s, starting in, of all places, Jersey City. With his luggage containing his reading stand and the book from which he will read being sent west ahead of him, Ryan's Dickens is reduced to having to recite A Christmas Carol, albeit in a slightly condensed form, from memory. "You were promised a story, and a story you shall have," he says, and he delivers in spades!
Dressed in a 19th-century gray cutaway jacket with a black vest and bright red ascot, Ryan sits in a leather wing chair or walks around the playing space recounting the events of that fateful night in Ebenezer Scrooge's life. He portrays all the characters (complete with different voices, posture and gestures), from the hale and hearty nephew Fred to the cockney-accented Bob Cratchit to the hollow voice of his late partner Jacob Marley. This version of ACC reminds us that it is, after all, a ghost story, with many mentions of phantoms, specters, apparitions, spirits, chains and “death's cold eyes.” We can even imagine the boisterous party thrown by Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig as told by Dickens, complete with the couple's lively dance. And as the various Ghosts of Past, Present and Yet-to-come, Ryan changes accents and body English in the twinkling of an eye. By the time Ebenezer Scrooge promises to “honor Christmas in his heart and to keep it all year,” we are convinced of the dour old man's transformative redemption, thanks to Ryan's virtuoso performance.
Peter Galman's direction is taut but never rushed; Colin Ryan appears comfortable portraying each literary giant and assuming the role and voices of the various characters. Seth Reich's lighting is wonderfully atmospheric, especially in the scenes where the Christmas Ghosts (and Jacob Marley) appear. Timur Kocak's sets anchor the proceedings and provide various venues, and Cindy Boyle's costume's convey the essence of each character very well. It is interesting to note that the version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was adapted by Greg Oliver Bodine and would have been similar to one used by Dickens on his tour of North America in the 1840s.
The pairing of these two literary giants of Christmas by the Actors Shakespeare Company at New Jersey City University is a stroke of genius that gives double pleasure. You don't have to choose one or the other; it is a surfeit of riches to have both in Christmas with Dickens & Dylan. And Colin Ryan's performance does great justice to the texts. It's a bountiful holiday treat for the entire family; a little girl in the audience the night I went was rapt throughout the performance. But you'd better hurry to the West Side Theatre at 285 West Side Avenue in Jersey City by Sunday, December 18, to take advantage of this brilliant production.
Performances: December 8th - 18th, 2011; Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30 PM; Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 PM
Photos by Cindy Boyle.