CSF's A Christmas Carol cuts the glitz, puts the focus on Dickens's words
Though I've managed to skip all Sugarplums, Scrooges and Child's Christmases this year, I couldn't avoid the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's A Christmas Carol. Director Philip C. Sneed's readers' theater approach — few actors, a cappella Christmas songs, minimal glitz, functional rather than exquisite sets and costumes — puts the focus squarely on Charles Dickens's words. We tend to forget what a consummate storyteller Dickens was, what life, feeling and relish he put into his writing. Some of the magnificent pieces of dialogue in A Christmas Carol are so familiar we barely hear them anymore. "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" asks Scrooge, when confronted with the fact of intractable poverty. And then there's Jacob Marley's lament, which should be tattooed on the forehead of the contemporary financiers whose greed condemned thousands to destitution: "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business." This production gives such lines due prominence, and also highlights less well-known moments of insight that are striking in their essential truth.
The show has strengths beyond the script: the fluidity of the staging; the clever, unexpected ways in which the three ghosts make their appearances; and the ingenuity of many of the set changes, with Scrooge's bed, for example, becoming a door or the side of a building as needed. Some scenes are delightful: the three merchants holding newspapers in front of their faces as they engage in unfeeling small talk about Scrooge's death; Bob Buckley's intoxicated capering as Scrooge when he wakes after his ghost-ridden night to realize he's alive and can still put things right; the finger games played by Martha, Peter and Tiny Tim at the Cratchits' table. And then there's Tiny Tim himself — a role so sentimental it's almost impossible to pull off. Three Tiny Tims are listed in the program, and the one I saw — Max Eugene Raabe — was so genuinely sweet and unaffected that he made even my callous critic's eyes film over.
But this production also has weaknesses. Some moments, especially in the first act, feel empty and flat. The acting is uneven, and overall the show lacks an essential richness, texture, imagination and vitality; sometimes the actors seem almost forlorn speaking their lines on that echoing stage. But no matter how much A Christmas Carol is parodied and commercialized, there's something at the heart of the story that matters, and this production sends you out into the night feeling a little kinder and happier than when you came in.
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