Russ Hunt's Reviews

A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens, Adapted by Doris Baizley

Theatre New Brunswick
November 1999

People who believe that live theatre is important know that, these days, there's a desperate need to attract, educate and convert new audiences. How, we often wonder, can we can put our move on a generation drenched in film and TV, and show them what miracles are possible when we use real bodies, in real time, in a real place, to tell a story? One way is to attract them to the ritual of the annual Christmas show. Like everybody else with something to sell, we try to get in on the Christmas rush.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Over the past few years, Theatre New Brunswick has occasionally succeeded, and occasionally failed, at offering this new audience (and all the rest of us) a chance to see the magic of the theatre in the service of honest emotion. This year's show is one of the better attempts to carry out this tall order, and though I have some reservations about it, I certainly recommend taking the kids -- and even going without them, if none happen to be available.

I have to confess that when I learned that the play for this year was to be A Christmas Carol, I sighed. Even the kids have seen the story often enough, in one form or another -- broadcast on the radio, read in some local annual celebrity reading, or as a TV show. When I found that it was a new -- or, at any rate, newish -- adaptation, done by a California based playwright named Doris Baizley, I thought, well, perhaps there's life in the old warhorse yet.

Baizley's adaptation was first performed about a decade ago, in Los Angeles, and has been successful enough to remain in production around North America most years since. Like The Woman in Black, TNB's first show this year, it's a play about putting on a play. The premise is that a company getting ready to stage a version of the story suddenly loses its Tiny Tim and its Scrooge, and has to carry on by dragooning the prop boy and the company's stage manager (he's appropriately Scrooge-like to start with) to take over. As soon as the stage manager agrees, the company launches into the runthrough the director's been calling for, the sound system kicks in, the lights do their thing, the fog machines start up, and we're off, among the huge shipping crates which constitute most of the set.

TNB's "new look" for this season, with almost everyone involved new to the Playhouse, continues with this production. (There are even some sardonic jokes about the departed Walter Learning.) The only TNB alumnus in the eleven-member cast (Al Kozlik, who turns in a thoroughly skilful performance as Scrooge) hasn't been on the Playhouse stage in years. We get to watch a new group of uniformly competent actors display their craft -- both individually (I liked, for example, the way Derek Boyes moved into and out of the part of the self-effacing Bob Cratchit, and Julianna Barclay, as Mrs. Cratchit, was nicely grudging in her agreement to toast the health of her husband's grasping and stingy employer) -- and as an ensemble as well. Much of the visual texture of the production is dependent on all eleven actors working together in individual scenes. Many of them are very tightly choreographed, as the company swirls the shipping crates, and Scrooge's bed, around the stage into new configurations -- and often continue a scene in the midst of the bustle.

All this made it possible to overlook, or at least forgive, the script's very real problems. For instance, Baizley has a tendency to leave out wonderful lines from Dickens, and write whole new, much weaker, scenes, like the jokey dialogue between Scrooge and the two ghosts of Christmas present.

There isn't -- as there often isn't in adaptations of this story -- much sense of conflict or drama about Scrooge's conversion: Scrooge is so easy to reform that virtually from the first encounter with Marley's ghost he's a goner. There's not the slightest doubt that soon he'll be buying Christmas geese and making charitable donations and chortling. From the startling entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Past (who turns out, in Arlene Mazerolle's reading, to be a pretty cuddly and seductive ghost), to the drifting in of the matched set of Ghosts of Christmas Present (played with appropriate liveliness by local students Emily Floyd and Sara Lynn Brown), to the spectacular visual effects around the silent Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge seems consistently eager to begin celebrating Christmas in earnest.

Another problem is that the relation between the "frame" -- the company putting on the show -- and the show itself doesn't seem clearly or carefully defined. We're sometimes confused about whether it's the Baizley character or the Dickens one who's speaking, or whether this is merely a runthrough or the real show.

This A Christmas Carol is full of good bits of theatre; the challenge is to find a way to pull it all together into a whole. If director Dennis Garnhum doesn't quite succeed, he does succeed in keeping our attention. Colorful, fast, energetic, and often over the top, the show has no difficulty with that, even when, as is sometimes the case, it's not so clear what's going on -- as in the "Ghost of Christmas Future" segment, for example. Unless you know the story pretty well you probably wouldn't guess that the figures taking the curtains down off Scrooge's bed in the dark and the fog are actually stealing the last possessions of a dying man. Allan Stichbury's set and lighting design make it very difficult to take your eyes off the show -- even when much of the set has disappeared behind billows of backlit fog.

Indeed, there's more on-stage fog than I've seen in years -- perhaps since the last TNB production of A Christmas Carol, in 1995 -- and there are lots of startling and striking tableaux created with spectacular lighting through the fog. For instance, that same "Ghost of Christmas Future" scene is dominated by hooded silhouettes surrounding the terrified Scrooge, with single headlights on their foreheads stabbing here and there through the fog like electrified Cyclopses.

I had more difficulty with Greg Coffin's sound design. The recorded music dominated the action as a movie score might, punctuating surprises and underlining emotions. Indeed, it often felt a little like karaoke theatre (in contrast, Neptune Theatre recently did a wonderful musical subtitled Karaoke at the Afterlife Bar and Grill, and chose to use a solid, energetic live band). The recorded music seemed occasionally to drive the actors along rather the way pre- recorded music does a ballet. And the music itself, often familiar Christmas tunes driven by rhythms which sound rather like the pre- programmed patterns that come in a mid-range electronic keyboard, is less than wonderful.

Intermittently, and inconsistently, characters were miked, often (but not always) for "voice-over" style narration. There's a fair bit of narrative in the script. It seems an attempt to preserve at least some of Dickens' familiar tone, but it often vitiates the drama by repeating it. We hardly need to be told that a bell is ringing if we hear it, or that it is ringing even louder if we hear that, too, or that there are tears in Belle's eyes if she takes out a handkerchief to wipe them.

And finally, the show's ending is something of an anticlimax. We don't end with the reformed Scrooge ladling out dollops of Christmas cheer, nor with the successful company celebrating having brought off their show in spite of everything. Rather, Jenni Burke offers us a longish version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," sung with some hesitation and uncertainty. And no wonder: the song seems an odd one at this juncture, and there doesn't seem to be much occasion for singing it (large Christmases would seem more the order of the day). It took the opening night audience a few minutes to recover itself and offer the standing ovation which at least some of them thought the show deserved.

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