Monday, December 11, 2017

“A Christmas Carol” at Hartford Stage Stars Professor

TRIP SLAYMAKER ’18

A&E EDITOR

Charles Dickens’ 1843 “Ghost story of Christmas” A Christmas Carol was so instantaneously popular that it was performed on stage only a few years after its initial release. Such was the novella’s immediate success in England. Before the age of effective copyright laws, small companies in London made a killing on staging variations of Carol to large crowds of theatergoers for whom the story had already become mythologized. This may be because the story’s structure and tone lend themselves to the stage.

This has certainly been true for the now twenty-year long run of Hartford Stage’s production of A Christmas Carol. Now directed by Rachel Alderman and overseen by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, Carol seems poised to enter a new era.

Of the many versions of this play that have been performed through the years, this year’s run has special significance for Trinity.

Playing Scrooge for the first time is Trinity Professor of Theater and Dance Michael Preston, director of Funny You Should Ask: The Kafka Project. Preston’s face and physiognomy are a near ideal match for Dickens’ miser, though he is perhaps unusually young in years to be portraying Scrooge. Much of that character’s age and sickliness must be communicated through performance alone. Actors who tackle the role of Scrooge are lucky in that Dickens’ description of the character is so intensely textured that Scrooges’ mannerisms are easily ascertained. Scrooge is a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.”  Preston approaches the character with great attention to detail, constantly harkening back to those wonderful descriptions with his anxious, ferrety gesturing. He often storms resolutely through the set, making great use of his billowing cape, and later the fussy sleepwear worn by Scrooge during his time among the spirits.

A more difficult and less commonplace accomplishment of Preston’s is his mastery of Scrooge’s voice: Preston’s take is a delightfully over-pronounced brogue with moments of manic staccatissimo that feels very true to form for Scrooge, and really contributes to a cultivated sense of setting that is difficult to maintain. The most challenging aspect of Preston’s character is his dual nature over the course of the story. This can only be accomplished by a performer who can capture both the biting isolation of Scrooge’s earlier scenes and the sudden overwhelming warmth of his later ones. Preston thankfully has the skill to conquer both sides of the coin.

Scrooge’s housekeeper Mrs. Dilber enjoys an expanded role for the performance of Noble Shropshire, an excellent Shakespearean actor who also plays the role of Scrooge’s one- time partner Jacob Marley. Shropshire and Preston share an impressive rapport in their roles, though the production engineers a romantic plotline between Dilber and Scrooge that has always felt overly tongue-in-cheek, and wholly unnecessary. As Marley, Shropshire soars both literally and figuratively, bemoaning his eternal torment in striking tones while dangling over the foggy expanse of the stage ten feet below.

Robert Hannon Davis is a perfect choice for Scrooge’s honorable but underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit, both as a flawless visual match and a sensitive performer. He heads a large and diverse cast of secondary characters, all of whom seem centered around the warmth of the Cratchit family, or what remains of Scrooge’s family.

In a strikingly retrospective move, the production uses folk song “Barbara Allen” as a reference to Scrooge’s sister, and family in general, the same song used in the 1951 version of the same story, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge.

Another choice the production has made in translating the text for the stage is the reworking of the central conceit of the three spirits. Scrooge is of course still visited by the spirits of the past, present, and future. In this version, though, the spirits are tightly identified with three of the debtors whom Scrooge extorts in his counting-house.

Just as Marley’s Ghost is double-cast with Mrs. Dilber, Rebecka Jones plays both doll-salesman Bettye Pidgeon and the ghost of Christmas past. Alan Rust plays the spirit of Christmas present, as well as a street vendor, while John-Andrew Morrison plays both the spirit of the future and street-inventor Mr. Marvel. The purpose of these dual roles seems at first to be a kind of riff on the tradition of the Wizard of Oz: to suggest that perhaps Scrooge has simply remembered the faces of people he deals with on a daily basis in a dream about the three spirits. The concept becomes further muddled, however, when the three street vendors acknowledge that they are indeed the three spirits at the end of the play. These added scenes provide nothing but a confusing subplot, and a handful of visual connections to the play, frivolously spending time and energy that might be better directed elsewhere.

With its love of visual spectacle paired with a dedication to capturing the magic of a literary classic, it’s difficult to be disappointed by A Christmas Carol. Professor Preston’s remarkable performance as Scrooge seems destined for definitive status, no matter how long he remains in the role.

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