What did the snail say while riding on the turtle’s back?
Snails also have brains the size of, like, pinheads, and that probably weighs in the balance – but the bottom line is that that’s a pretty corny (as in funny) jape. It’s the kind of thing you can expect at A Christmas Carol, Cygnet Theatre Company’s second consecutive turn at the holiday classic (the group did it once some years ago before its radio play It’s a Wonderful Life mounted for several seasons). The cast sings and carries on under the house lights prior to curtain, its palpable geniality designed to mirror that in the 1843 Charles Dickens novella.
The story’s been told in 712,384 ways on stage, screen and radio (its first film adaptation is from 1901, and Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air did an absolutely terrible job with it 37 years later), which means that everybody knows the story, even those yet unborn. The bigger idea, though, is one of accountability – that we’re responsible for one another and that it’s far better to give than to receive.
Cygnet’s show is at times a little too will-o’-the-wisp for its own good, but its special effects and fine subtext performances hold sway in a fun, pretty nice take on this powerful tale.
London’s indelible Ebenezer Scrooge is a richer-than-God, curmudgeonly old fart who’d knock his mom into the snow (and probably has) before he’d part with so much as a farthing. He’ll be visited in due course by the specter of his former partner Jacob Marley, who died seven years ago this Christmas eve – and Marley’s screed of regret over his misspent past fuels the action: Scrooge will be visited by three spirits sent to scare him straight, forecasting his own death lest he abandon his close-fisted soul.
Murray’s… trying to fun things up amid the hundred-thousand approaches the story’s seen.
A deeply shaken Scrooge heeds the message (Tom Stephenson is outstanding at portraying Scrooge’s palette of emotions at that moment), and he’ll morph into “as good a friend, as good a master and as good a man as the good old city ever knew.” Meanwhile, the eternal Tiny Tim pipes up for a newly enlightened world with his epiphanic “God bless us every one!”
Director Sean Murray delivers an earnest entry, with a certain lightness of being you might not get elsewhere. Cute, ironic effects pepper the spectacle – slidewhistles and sounds of the wind rule certain scenes, and cast members throw fake snowballs at the audience and peer through curtains. Murray’s obviously, and correctly, trying to fun things up amid the hundred-thousand approaches the story’s seen.
But his adaptation sometimes goes a little too far, because it never really gives us a sense of urgency about Scrooge and the central factor in his accumulation of wealth. His and Marley’s back-door dealings and collusion got them where they were – but to see this Carol, you can’t really point to a specific incident within that framework that influenced Scrooge into his miserly ways.
The dastardly buyout of kindly Fezziwig, under whom Scrooge apprenticed; the death of Eb’s sister Fan in his youth; the absence of nephew Fred (which I’ll never understand in a million years), such an able contrast to his skinflint uncle: Surely, these and other excluded markers would have helped define the central figure. Young Scrooge’s fiancee does turn him out at one point, bemoaning his fledgling obsession with his golden idol (“May you be happy in the life you have chosen”) – still, that’s not enough to sustain the character’s colossally mingy ways, which become his ill-spent way of life.
But there’s a healthy sense of ensemble here, fed by single actors in multiple roles. David McBean, for example, is great as Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Present and in a few other parts; Maggie Carney is positively wonderful as Mrs. Cratchit and Mrs. Dilbur, Scrooge’s befuddled Cockney ‘ousekeepah. The Old Globe Theatre’s Summer Shakespeare Festival features casts that stretch their muscles playing one, two and even three roles; it’s an enormously worthwhile approach, and it’s evident here in microcosm.
[T]he best Christmas gift, it says, is the one that’s freely given…
This is a good tech effort as well, with Andrew Hull’s cavernous set fueling Katie Whalley Banville’s generous choreography. Jeanne Reith continues in her role as Best Costume Designer in the History of the Universe, although the program notes that the sartorials are based on Shirley Pierson’s original design. A similar entry says that Kyle Montgomery’s able lights are based on the original design of R. Craig Wolf.
Music director/accompanist Patrick Marion sits upstage right, maybe a little too far from the limelight, as he executes Billy Thompson’s nimble score. The script, come to think of it, is a score unto itself – the best Christmas gift, it says, is the one that’s freely given, and Cygnet’s entry reflects this sentiment in some very good holiday fare.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Dec. 6. A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 27 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in, oddly enough, Old Town. $39-$60. (619) 337-1525, cygnettheatre.com.