Under new artistic director Philip C. Sneed, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival offered A Child's Christmas in Wales last year. Now the show is back, but three new members in the six-actor cast offer an object lesson on the ways in which performances alone can shape the way we experience a production.
Dylan Thomas's gorgeously exuberant evocation of his childhood Christmases is only a few pages long. To make an evening of it — which the CSF barely does, even after including a completely unnecessary intermission — you have to put in lots of other stuff: dance and mime, songs, pieces of extraneous text. You have to stretch out the narrative, giving almost every phrase a scene of its own, so that when Thomas talks about postmen, the audience gets a trio of merry people dancing a syncopated jig; a single-phrase reference to dinner morphs into a circle of actors passing plates round and round; the flat sentence "The dog was sick" becomes an actor crouched on all fours, comically retching; and someone lies on the ground to impersonate the dead bird Thomas says he always sees somewhere on Christmas day, "perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out." Some phrases are repeated: the amazing description of snow "shawling out of the ground" and drifting from the "arms and hands and bodies of the trees," for instance, and the famous line about not being able to remember whether it snowed for "six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."
Some of Sneed's innovations work beautifully, adding to the gleeful spirit of the piece — the scene in which young Thomas is swathed head to foot in the scarves, hats and vests he's been given for Christmas; the addition of the poem about a mischievous dog that Thomas wrote when he was eleven: "There are many who say that a dog has its day/And a cat has a number of lives/There are others who think that a lobster is pink/And that bees never work in their hives...." But Thomas's story is exquisitely structured; it has a very specific tone and rhythm, ending on a wondering, almost mystic note, and other CSF interpolations stretch it out of shape. Some appear to have been added solely to fill time. Sneed throws in a chunk of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which may be another classic and essential text, but is the product of a different sensibility altogether. And there are echoes of that other holiday perennial, The Nutcracker, including a magically growing Christmas tree. The evening begins and ends with a sleeper on a child's cot — first the adult Thomas, and then his child self — and I swear, as the lights faded, I half-expected to see the Sugarplum Fairy bourréeing softly off into the darkness, to the plaintive strains of Tchaikovsky's score. A Child's Christmas in Wales is filled with shifting images, but it's about memory, not dreams, and there is a difference.
On the whole, the cast is stronger than last year's. Karyn Casl and Rebecca Remaly return to good effect; Matt Mueller and Stephen Weitz are wonderful additions, both utterly talented and charming. Orion Pilger, who continues to play young Thomas, is more centered this round, and his younger sister, Cambria, is a delight. Overall, the acting is simultaneously less hammy and more energetic than it was last year, yet these performing strengths highlight some conceptual weaknesses. The expressiveness of the acting can distract from the brilliance of the words. Because this cast sings better, we're given more carols, which are really pretty, but — like the Dickens and the tree — generically Christmas-y rather than specific to Thomas. And even the moment when a quavering old voice emanates from a ghostly house to join the children in their caroling — an intimation of mortality that last year added a darker thread to the story's glowing tapestry — just isn't as moving as it should be.