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‘A Christmas Carol’ is off key this time

Review by – Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

Trinity Repertory Theater Company has been doing A Christmas Carol for nearly four decades. In that time there have been many different takes on the holiday classic, some more winning than others. Alas the current installment is not one of those.

This reviewer has seen every Christmas Carol at Trinity to date. Over the years the resilient story has occasionally been set in different time periods and approached from different perspectives. On one occasion a grim stone edifice dominated the stage. Scrooge has been played by women. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has been represented by a Big Nazo puppet, and in 1998, when the production paid homage to the city of Providence, the dancing cop even made an appearance.

However, the true essence of this piece generally comes through best the closer the production remains faithful to the original concept of Charles Dickens’s 19th century morality play.

Despite the occasional inspired flights of fancy, the adaption by Adrian Hall and Richard “Dee-Dee” Cumming, which Trinity Rep used until last year, always seemed to anchor the show to its traditional core message. That version has been supplanted.

With its familiar music by Cumming (often including chanting monks) and with Hall’s touchstone moments, such as the bone-chilling appearance of Marley’s Ghost dragging yards of chain and Scrooge’s fierce confrontations with everyone he meets in the opening scenes, the productions almost always reliably delivered the experience of Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey from miserly misanthropy to self-awareness and redemption.

Viewers could share his moments of self-discovery aided by the spirits he encounters, and they could experience his conversion as a moment of catharsis in which they rejoiced along with the parsimonious old curmudgeon as he re-discovered his humanity and his decency.

In the current production, which is on-stage through Dec. 31 in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater upstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence, the concept adopted by Director James Dean Palmer works, despite everyone’s best effort, to defuse the elements which are critical to the effect the play aims to achieve.

To no obvious advantage, Palmer has chosen to frame the traditional story with a family scene in which children and their grandparents are reading the Dickens story. The father of the family comes home and at the children’s insistence begins reading the book out loud. As he does so, the grandfather slowly assumes the role of Scrooge and the grandmother becomes Jacob Marley.

It is a rather awkward transformation which seems a good deal more distracting than it is magical. Instead of allowing the viewer to immediately become absorbed in the establishment of Scrooge’s twisted and deformed character and his obsession with material gain, it plants the gnawing idea that we aren’t really seeing what we are asked to believe. It is no fault of the actors that they are presented as counterfeits by the director.

Perhaps due to this intrusive device the scenes which show us Scrooge’s nature and which set up the circumstances for his transformation to a generous caring soul are compressed and diminished.

Comic elements are introduced which might seem funny in themselves but they further lessen the impact of confrontations which in other productions have given us insight into Ebenezer’s bilious world view.

For example, the two portly gentlemen who come to Scrooge’s office to solicit money to assist the poor have been conceived as wild caricatures resembling Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. They speak with cartoonish inflection and are costumed in exaggerated clown-like garb. They are hilarious but wrong for the scene. The result is to neutralize the intensity of Scrooge’s reaction to their plea for funds. How can we be expected to take him seriously when he is playing against not only two buffoons but two caricatures of buffoons?

Viewed for their own sake and apart from their purpose in advancing the plot to its ultimate conclusion the Staves (scenes) with the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come offer some very entertaining moments and some fine musical numbers, such as an ensemble rendition of “Hard Times” sung by a group of miners who erupt out of a large trap door in the stage. Why they are in the play isn’t really clear, but the song is compelling.

The problem is that the parts of this production don’t fit together convincingly. By winking at the audience and attempting to enlist them in a mutual understanding that the action they are witnessing is just a show being put on by grandpa and grandma, this attempt at freshness only succeeds in undercutting the classic elements of dramatic tension and their resolution.

Also, this year a number of the key elements are noticeably altered or missing entirely. There is no Mrs. Cratchit. Fezziwig’s party is a bacchanalian revel, largely deprived of true holiday sentiment. The party at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s house is reduced to a perfunctory incidental scene. Elements that viewers anticipate and wait to see are missing in action. Others are presented almost as parodies of themselves.

So when Ebenezer arrives at the instant of his awakening, as viewers we are not very moved since all along we have been seeing him through the eyes of his grandchildren who know he isn’t really Scrooge. The air has been let out of the ball before the game ever began. (Yes the allusion to Deflate Gate is intentional).

For the first time in memory this short play is performed with an intermission for no discernable reason. It only further decreases any building momentum toward a climax.

Individual performances within the construct they have been given to work are up to Trinity’s usual high standard.

Brian McEleney employs his exceptional skills to the max to put over the Scrooge he is assigned to animate. His physical efforts are a tour de force and his talent isn’t ever over-shadowed by the confines of the concept.

Anne Scurria is equally determined as Grandma and as Jacob Marley (who arrives as a ghost entangled with elastic bands, not chains) as well as Mrs. Fezziwig.

Kamili Okweni Feelings proves a serviceable narrator. Rebecca Gibel is irrepressibly lively and engaging as the Ghost of Christmas Past. She makes a sensational entrance as she falls through the ceiling. Rachel Warren is fine as the Ghost of Christmas Present and always sings beautifully. Stephen Thorne is a convincing Fezziwig. Chris Stahl gives a strong performance as Bob Cratchit, and Jake Lowenthal has great presence as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. The latter two actors are third year students in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program. They reflect well on the program’s success at developing talent.