December 19, 2014

Blackfriars Christmas Carol Makes the Old Man Dance

Patrick Earl as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas carol at The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. Photo by Michael Bailey.

I don’t much see myself in Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s British, I’m American. He’s stingy, I’m profligate. He cultivates bitterness, and I cultivate mechanisms for keeping bitterness out of my mouth and out of my voice. I’ve had enough of bitterness. But when Scrooge descended from the stage on Saturday and sat down in the audience, he looked a lot like me.

The best-known Christmas story of our age begins with words unlikely to appear on Christmas cards or Christmas banners: “Marley was dead, to begin with.”

I’ve seen numerous productions of A Christmas Carol, but I’m not sure that I’d ever heard those words. Because, I mean, like bummer, man. Where do you go from there?

Charles Dickens goes from that fact, to a list of witnesses to that fact, to a comment on the phrase they might have used to show us that they didn’t give a damn about that fact: dead as a door-nail. “I might have been inclined myself to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade,” says Dickens. “But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was dead as a door-nail.”

Most productions skip the bit about the coffin-nails and start frosting Christmas cookies as soon as they can. Because, I mean, like bummer, man.

Director Jim Warren’s production at The Blackfriars Playhouse doesn’t start to frost cookies until Dickens does. Like all Blackfriars productions, this one stays close to the text, which may be why I see myself in that old miser: Dickens knew what people look like.

The production does give away candy, and it makes great use of the actors’ voices, which is another Blackfriars hallmark: everybody sings. New songs, old songs, Christmas songs. Songs.

And it makes Scrooge walk through the narrow space between the knees of patrons seated in the second row and the backs of patrons seated in the first row, his musty cloak entangling their hair. On Saturday he stopped, grabbed a patron’s cup of coffee, drank some, grumbled, and then gave it back.

It also puts a narrator onstage to speak the lines that Dickens speaks himself in the novella, the conventions of realism not yet constraining the author or the playwright to the back of the house. “There is no doubt that Marley was dead,” the narrator continues. “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Scrooge gets ready for a bad dream.Photo by Michael Bailey.

Neither can anything wonderful come from pretending that the story is anything other than a tale told by a teller to a bunch of people who have paid a little money for a little wonder. One of the things I love about productions at The Blackfriars Playhouse is their insistence that we’re all in this story-telling business together, this chance to make a little wonder. We share one space. We share one pool of light. Gallant people sit onstage in gallants’ stools, and actors sometimes make them hold their capes, or rub their heads, or ask them if they’ve seen a ghost. They get to answer as they will. That’s part of the deal, and part of the wonder.

Maybe that’s what makes me see myself in Scrooge. Lets me, I should say. And in cringing Cratchit. And in Tiny Tim, my inner cripple.

After climbing through a trapdoor into Scrooge’s bedroom, wrapped in chains with links the size of cannon balls, Jacob Marley, who was dead to begin with, explains that he’s wearing the the chains he forged while he was alive. “Perhaps you’d like to know the length and weight of the chain you’re forging?” he suggests.

Not now, for Christ’s sake. ‘Tis the season to be jolly.

“I have seen your noble passions fall off one by one,” says Belle, the old man’s lovely charming ex-betrothed. And I think about my fallen noble passions, and about the way they fell. “Now I set you free to be the man you are,” she says, taking off his ring. “May you be happy in the life you’ve chosen.”

Chosen’s not the word I would have used.

The most Blackfriars moment in the show I saw on Saturday occurred when the Ghost of Christmas Past took Ebenezer back to a Christmas party he had attended in his youth. The revelers — his former friends — begin to sing and dance, and the ghost, played by Allison Glenzer, starts to shake it with them. Glenzer loves to sing and dance. But Ebenezer doesn’t. He slips off the stage and finds an empty seat between an older couple and a younger family, and he settles in to watch the merry-making, like the rest of us. 

Glenzer, who’s supposed to be his spirit guide, is getting down in earnest, and she doesn’t think about him for a while. Neither do we. For two or three minutes, we surrender to the spectacle of music. At one point, I see that Patrick Earl, who plays Scrooge, has turned around in his seat and he’s speaking to the fellow behind him. 

He’s three rows away from me, and the music is loud, so I can’t hear what he’s saying, but the expression on his face speaks clearly: “Were we like that once?” he’s asking. “Did you choose your life? How does anybody hang on to his noble passions?”

When Glenzer sees him talking to that man, she comes down and takes his hands and leads him back onto the stage and makes him dance. He doesn’t want to dance, but she insists. It’s a benevolent world, after all, with mechanisms in place to turn us away from the parts of ourselves that let our noble passions fall. That’s the story that we’re telling, together.

She takes his hands and makes him dance. He doesn’t want to — I don’t either — and we don’t like the way it feels at first — awkward, graceless. Then we forget that we don’t like it. Then I do. 

 

Highly recommended.

Running time: ninety minutes, with one intermission.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Adapted for the stage and directed by Jim Warren. Featuring: Patrick Midgeley, Patrick Earl, Andrew Goldwasser, Rick Blunt, Fernando Lamberty, David Millstone, Jody Ibanez, Colin Ryan, Allison Glenzer, Bridget Rue, Stephanie Holladay Earl, Emily Joshi-Powell, and Russell Daniels. Produced by the American Shakespeare Center in Stainton VA. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.

 

 

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About Mark Dewey

Mark Dewey teaches English at The Potomac School and writes about life near the Shenandoah River. He loves mountain streams, his wife, his children, winter, and the Camino de Santiago. He is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.

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