Thursday, November 19, 2009

Christmas Carol'd at the Performance Network Theater - November 19, 2009

There have been so many adaptations of Charles Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol, from operas and radio programs to films and recordings.  In anticipation of seeing this play, I watched the movie Scrooged last night.  I never tire of that movie, and Bill Murray couldn't be any better as the cynicism-saturated and morally-bereft corporate goon version of Scrooge.

Scrooge and Jacob Marley's Ghost

Tonight was the opening performance of Christmas Carol'd, written by Joseph Zettelmaier. As always, the set was composed very cleverly.  As I've noted previously, the minimalist approach is always necessary due to space limitations. But production after production, the set designer and lighting designer both refine the technique of what a suggestion here or a bit of strategic lighting there can do to create multiple settings.  Center stage served multiple purposes from being a place for carolers to gather on a London street to later become the entrance to Scrooge's home and then even later, a dining room where a family supped.

Technical details such as the sound effects were also well done.  In another minimalist gesture, coconut shell halves were clapped together rhythmically to simulate the clopping of horse hooves.  This was done by a performer as she strolled across the set.  I found this “open” display to be an unusual but nice touch, a way of including the audience.  Another “open” display and an especially clever special effect  was the first appearance of Jacob Marley.  As Scrooge approached his home, on the other side of the door, the audience could plainly see that one of the actors was pressing his face against a flexible screen.  It looked as though a profile of a featureless face was protruding through the space where the little door window should have been.  It was very effective.  Attention to detail was evident, as usual, from the costumes to the "cobblestone" streets to such period implements as inkwells and lampposts.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

The story was narrated in turns and sometimes jointly by the four performers who filled over forty roles and who first appear to the audience as four carolers.  The fifth actor who plays Scrooge was the only one who remained in character throughout the play.  The "carolers", due to the demands of the script, would frequently break out of character very quickly to flawlessly inhabit their next character.  The interactions between characters, especially the dialogue, were often fast-paced but seamless.  Scrooge, played by John Siebert, effectively displayed the range of emotions that besets his character as the story progresses.  I have seen Siebert in other roles at this theater, and regardless whether he has a minor role or a leading one such as in this play, he always delivers admirably in his somewhat understated manner.

One device that I especially liked was when the four narrators would each recite a word, one after another, sequentially, to complete a sentence.    It is a very effective way to show cohesiveness, that they were of one mind - clever and enjoyable to watch when done well as it was here. It has an unusual lilting quality that catches the audience's attention.

For the most part, this version of A Christmas Carol remained fairly true to the original story.  There were some scenes included that were part of the original story that are not very often seen in most other versions. One such scene was when Scrooge's unexpected death gives an impoverished couple a financial reprieve. It did seem to add a bit of depth to the story.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present

With all that was masterfully done, still there were some flaws.  Some of the sound effects such as the ringing of a loud bell were performed as dialogue was being spoken and therefore only the bell was heard.  At other times, dialogue or narration was diminished due to inarticulation.  This was due to rapid-fire speech done in an affected English accent in some cases.  Also, the script itself suffered.  In the original story, there was a bit of silly debate about why the phrase is "deader than a doornail" when other things such as a coffin nail might be considered more fitting.  In that vein, the playwright chose to expand that theme by having the carolers engage in a debate about whether Scrooge eyes were more ferret-like or ape-like.  It was horribly nonsensical.

I think I might have also been disappointed somewhat because of the way it was promoted.  It had been described as “funny and inventive” but it was not any more humorous than Dickens’ original version.  I thought “inventive” also referred to the dialogue and had expected a considerable amount of witty banter.  The production was inventive in many ways but the actual script remained fairly close to the original story and that which would have been perfectly fine if I hadn’t had different expectations

So, do I recommend it?  Yes!  But I would say to expect a very traditional rendition of the story which is still pretty wonderful.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Update:   November 30, 2009
I ran into a friend the next morning who works as a sound technician for the Performance Network when musicals are performed.  When I mentioned some of the problems of the performance, he said that first nights were always difficult.  Later when some of the members of the Performance Network staff were promoting the play at the Barnes and Noble on Washtenaw, one of the young women said that it had continued to be a work in progress with the playwright in attendance to make adjustments along with the director.  I will make another update as I hear from others who plan to attend a few weeks after my visit.  Perhaps with a future production, I’ll make a point of attending after the play has run for at least two weeks.

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