Arlington — ‘Tis the season, of course.
Theatre Arlington’s entry in the “Bah Humbug” sweepstakes this year, Israel Horovitz’s Dickens adaptation A Christmas Carol: Scrooge & Marley, does the visuals to a turn, with handsome, shadowy Olde London sets from Anthony Curtis, and authentic period costumes by Ellen Borish. (Her Florentine-floral costume for the Ghost of Christmas Present is a stunner.) Chill winds rattle the windows (Melissa Santa’s sound design is excellent) and clouds of fog (Curtis is also the show’s technical director) add an authentically smoky look to Kyle Harris’ brooding light effects.
And did we mention the ghost of Jacob Marley, the long-dead partner of Ebenezer Scrooge? Glamming around the stage in a David Bowie white lounge suit festooned with loops of chain, Travis Cook’s character, engaging yet distracting, is the spirit who came to dinner…and stayed for the show.
Steals it, in fact.
And thereby hangs the problem presented by Horovitz’ late-‘70s adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas novella: Jacob Marley stays all night. He’s the show’s narrator, emcee and activities director, nudging the actors—and the audience, too, as he points us to the door at intermission. A bit of a trickster, he plays mind games with Scrooge. Marley clanks and moans and insists he’s a tormented soul, but we’re hard-pressed to buy it. The guy’s having way too much fun.
No denying Horovitz’s Carol has scary effects and plenty of theatricality—and solves the problem of how to “speak” Dickens’ marvelous narrative lines onstage. But it changes the nature of the story, turning our heads away from Dickens’ focus on Scrooge’s redemption and the good he might do for all the struggling people around him.
Charles Dickens, in his own words, intended A Christmas Carol to “hammer” at his readers’ hearts, to move them to see and help the brutally poor all around them—or risk their immortal souls. A truly Dickensian Christmas Carol should be too hard-hitting for tots.
We ought, for example, to be properly terrified by the quick glimpse of hell Dickens shows us as Marley (after a short and sharply worded visit to Scrooge) is sucked back into eternal punishment. Instead, this Jacob sticks around, and we lose any deep feeling for the doom Scrooge himself faces if he doesn’t change his greedy, uncaring ways. Even the two starving-child figures of Ignorance and Want—who should strike even more fear and pity in our hearts—are presented in profile, never looking out to confront us with our own shortcomings. Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, this Carol is rated G.
It is, perhaps, not in the holiday spirit to wish for a different Christmas Carol instead of reviewing the one at hand—and TA’s show, directed by Bill Sizemore, has a number of fine performances sprinkled among the impressively large cast. Robert Banks brings his innate stage gravitas and flashing eyes (used to express everything from stark terror to mad humor) to the role of the miserly Scrooge. We can believe from the start that his Scrooge is ready for reformation, as Banks reacts with small but tellingly heartfelt emotion to the troubling scenes of past, present and future passing before him.
Michael Rains is meek, mild, and goodness personified as clerk Bob Cratchit, giving every ounce of his love (in work and play) to his family. Catherine Parkins Pronske is sweet and tart as his loving, blunt wife. Danny Macchietto gives Christmas Past an exotic but unplaceable accent and a quirky, amused delivery—and it works, mostly. Judy Sizemore employs some Glinda the Good Witch charm as Christmas Present, leading Scrooge through the mean streets of 1840s London. Reed Lewis is a stalwart nephew Fred, who won’t give up on Uncle Ebenezer. Azzie Johnson scores as young-adult Scrooge (and a snarky businessman), and Samantha McKecknie debuts in the touching role of Scrooge’s beloved sister Fan.
The Cratchit children (Matthew Jones as Tiny Tim, Margaret Thompson as Martha, Will Reames as Peter and Avery Jones as Belinda) lend a sweet, true presence, and young Reames touches our hearts again as the lonely and too-little-loved adolescent Scrooge.
Barry Alguire stage-manages the bustling crowd of characters well, and Cathy Pritchett’s props (is she in charge of chains too?) keep us in the moment. There’s a lovely tree in the lobby for Christmas photos, warm drinks at the concession stand, and a pleasant and comforting Christmas vibe all around. Smaller children are likely to find the show too long, but kids of 10 and up may enjoy this haunted-house take on the old story—and pay no attention to the “bah, humbug’s” coming from Dickens purists.
God bless us, every one!