A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adaptation by Eric Hill. Directed by Eric Hill and E. Gray Simons III.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Eric Hill and Samantha Richert; photo: Jaime Davidson
"The common welfare was my business..."
Jacob Marleyís ghost says this to the unbelieving Ebenezer Scrooge in the Charles Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol" now on stage at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festvial in Stockbridge, MA It should be a slap in the face for the old, bitter man, but in this production it is more a sweet reminder of how far astray one human soul can go without another person watching over all that he does. At the BTF Scrooge is not the historically mean-spirited, menacing, anti-human that we usually see. In Eric Hillís hands he appears an unhappy, tormented soul whose basic sweetness has been buried deep within his mind and body until it can be coaxed back to life by four helpful spirits whose first names could be (but arenít) Rye, Gin, Rum and Absinthe.
In classic British tradition the four ghosts are played to the clear-glass brim by co-director Simons as Jacob (Rye) Marley, Samantha (Gin) Richert as Christmas Past, Ralph (Rum) Petillo as Christmas Present, and Kori (Absinthe) Alston as Christmas Yet To Come. Alston has the hardest job, and the tallest, in this role He never speaks; he merely gestures and moves. There should be in his performance the imminent threat of death and destruction, of the path to hell and eternal damnation or at least of perpetual purgatory. There is none of that in his extended arm and hand, there is only the sense of the drugged-out, spacey and disconnected absinthe drinker.
Petilloís Christmas Present is a jovial if forbidding creature with less fun in his spiritual presence and more Caribbean spice in his swagger. His role is curtailed in the choices made by author Hill for his scenes yet his ineffable sense of hot rum cannot be missed in his playing. Similarly Simonsí Marley is a classic-looking ghoul who never frightens, not even in his "frightful cry" and his "appalling noise." The lesson he comes to teach is truncated and, from an audience point of view, not effective, but there is a rye, or wry, depth to him in spite of the acting choices.
Richertís Christmas Past is a wraith, a silvered ghost whose kindness pointed through firmness is just the right touch for this role. She brings in the sensitivity that is otherwise lacking in her compatriots, one that is properly unique to her character. She literally reeks of the berries that flavor the gin and she seems to have milled her character from those aspects of Britainís favorite elegant drink.
The problem they all have is connected to Hillís Scrooge. The man he plays is a kind man who has gone astray, a young man who has never been truly hurt or lost in the world. His Scrooge has never suffered betrayal at the hands of an uncaring father who takes him from a school where everything is paid for by the parent and dropped immediately after Christmas into an apprenticeship that keeps him from formal education and a family existence. Hillís old Scrooge has lost a lover and wife not to the "idol that has replaced" her, gold, but to an over-earnest need to create a solid fiscal foundation in order to take care of her and not mistreat their children. Hillís Scrooge is a misunderstood man whose life took turns he never intended to take in his journey to the grave. A victim of circumstances, influenced by early betrayals, Hillís Ebenezer does so much require reclamation as he does understanding and a strong hand to lead him back to the root of human kindness.
This is a short road for our Scrooge of the evening to take. The ghosts remind him of his mistakes and he vows to correct them. Here is a man ready to take the right path almost from the beginning, but his anger and bitterness prevent him until these unusual circumstances - or ghosts - present themselves. It is an unusual route for this tale to take, but it works in many interesting ways. For one thing, it is easier to believe than many of those versions where a veritable evil old man becomes giddy and sweet in just eight hours.
There are many good people in wonderful supporting roles. Gail Ryan is a superb Laundress. Henry Taylor is a moving Tiny Tim. Jesse Hinson is excellent as Fred, Scroogeís nephew and Rebecca Leigh does a wonderful job as Mrs. Fred. Alee Danyluk provides nice violin music when needed and E. Gray Simons III does his best work as Old Joe.
Bob Cratchitt is played by Mark E Rosenthal. Most of the time I liked him, but now and then, when emotions needed to dominate, I was disappointed. His lows and his highs were a bit too close to register and make their points. Still I found him an easy actor to listen to and I did appreciate his middle ground in the role, pleasant, well-thought-out and played with a real sense of reality. I cannot say the same thing for the "Dickens" narrator whose accent and appearance and general performance were definitely below par.
The show is played in opulent style on a fabulous set by Carl Sprague, in picture perfect costumes by Jessica Risser-Milne under emotionally designed lighting by Matthew E. Adelson. J Hagenbuckle does nice things with the sound for this show.
The chorus of kids and adults do a wonderful job filling the stage and singing the music and becoming a necessary part of the picture. Without them this edition of this show would not be the charming experience it is.
A Christmas Carol is fluid and easy to watch, guaranteed not to scare anyone and an easy holiday event for adults or families. If you listen carefully to every word youíll wonder why what you see isnít whatís described, but if you pay a little bit less attention to Dickens and more to the visual playing of the company you are bound to have a wonderful time with this version of "A Christmas Carol." As for me, stop sending in the clowns.
A Christmas Carol runs at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA through December 30. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576, ext 33 or go online at www.berkshiretheatre.org.