When the pretty young lady, clad in Victorian-era garb but sporting short, natural hair, leans into the microphone and begins beatboxing, you know this isn't your father's Christmas Carol. It's still Charles Dickens's timeless story, however, but with plenty of reinvention from playwright Patrick Barlow, director/scenic designer Chad Henderson, and costumer Amy Lown. Purists may raise an eyebrow or two at this post-modern take on a holiday classic, while purists of a different sort may wonder why Trustus Theatre is producing a family-friendly, feel-good version of a century-and-a-half-old novella, but there's no question that talent both on stage and behind the scenes ensures enjoyable seasonal entertainment with some decidedly non-traditional story-telling twists.
We're all familiar with Scrooge, but let's focus on Barlow for a moment. He's best known for a stage adaptation of The 39 Steps, in which three actors played dozens of characters from the Hitchcock film, interacting with a rugged hero whose tongue was firmly planted in cheek; their quick changes of costume, wig, accent and gender, miming or improvising most sets and props while navigating the melodramatic plot and dialogue made for broad slapstick comedy. Here Barlow uses the same technique, but retains respect for the original flowery prose.
Stann Gwynn, almost unrecognizable under heavy character make-up, plays Scrooge throughout. The bulbous nose, ravaged face and bushy eyebrows (designed by Robin Gottlieb) are reminiscent of some of the dwarves from the recent screen version of The Hobbit - exaggerated but still believable - but more importantly, they seem to free Gwynn as an actor. He's played older before, he's done accents before, and he's played grandiloquent characters before, but I've never seen those all at once, with such sustained intensity over more than two hours. Avery Bateman, Catherine Hunsinger, Wela Mbusi, and Scott Herr portray everyone else, although the quick changes and jumps from one persona to the next occur fairly naturally. Actors playing multiple roles is commonplace now on stage, and Barlow only occasionally uses that convention for comedy. Even the use of marionettes to depict young Scrooge and Tiny Tim prompts an initial surge of laughter from the audience, but then plays out in a fairly straightforward manner. Indeed, I found myself wishing that there were a lot more comedy, even if improvised by the capable cast, especially in the first act. When Hunsinger appears as a sort of sexy, steampunk Spice Girl-turned-nanny in the second act as the Ghost of Christmas Present, the pace picks up, and Barlow occasionally veers away from the original Dickens text to insert jokes here and there, including a hilarious conclusion to Scrooge's dream that breaks the fourth wall unexpectedly.
All four of the mini-ensemble also double (triple?) as singers and musicians, providing mood music in the background via various instruments, and sometimes breaking out into traditional Christmas songs. Both Hunsinger and Bateman, last seen together in Henderson's production of Spring Awakening two years ago, get to show off their lovely voices, but they actually are even more impressive in their mastery of multiple characters and authentic accents. Dialect coach Marybeth Gorman (surely helped by Mbusi, a native of the U.K. who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company) has ensured a lively mix of credible twangs and lilts that are mainly Cockney, "proper" British, and Irish, but I swear I heard hints of Manchester, rural Yorkshire, and Wales here and there, which was quite refreshing.
A little more on the music: sometimes, Henderson incorporates modern songs, from artists like Justin Timberlake and Panic! At The Disco. At other moments, the actors perform moody instrumental tunes, developed by cast and director before rehearsals began. Particularly effective are Hunsinger on cello at moments of poignancy and sorrow, and Herr on keyboards, creating menacing chords sung to by Bateman, as Mbusi appears as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Henderson uses a Line 6 Delay Modulator to create a number of beatbox and hip hop effects, as well as a Vocalist Live harmony effects processor. The tech gadgetry is certainly interesting; I'm not sure how much it actually adds to the performance, but it certainly livens up the proceedings. What is especially memorable is the production design, which incorporates a painted facade of a London street scene, plus expertly detailed projected images (snow falling, the hustle and bustle of city streets, a clock's face moving forward in time, the logo of Scrooge's business, a time vortex a la Doctor Who) courtesy of Baxter Engle. Those projections are seen on a large round screen of sorts over stage left, and enhance the setting so much that I'd be happy to see similar effects in future productions. Amy Lown's excellent costumes include elegant Victorian attire, saucy steampunk-chic couture, and an ominous, tattered Christmas Yet to Come that could have been designed by Terry Gilliam.
Not everything works. The audio technology sometimes gets very loud, which is intended as a sort of in-your-face wake-up call to an audience that might get bored by the familiar material, but might be a little intimidating to the youngest or oldest attendees. (The show is completely G-rated, but its intensity, from the apparitions for example, might make this best for, say, age 10 and older.) Sometimes the music and sound effects clash with the dialogue, and/or make it sound distorted. The first act drags at times, and could use a lot more of the comedy found the second. A re-imagined Marley, his chains now controlled by the other three actors as if to signify his torment in the afterlife, seems awkward and unwieldy rather than scary. Christmas Yet to Come is scary, but a Darth Vader-like heavy breathing effect got laughs where there needed to be chills.
This production is a new one, however, simultaneously opening here, off-Broadway, and at other regional theatres around the country, and new works are often revised. What impressed me about Barlow's adaptation is his incorporation of huge amounts of the original language from Dickens, made easily relatable by proficient performers, and his tweaking of its theme to resonate even more with contemporary audiences. Scrooge is no longer simply a cranky old man who had a sad childhood and bad experiences at Christmas; Barlow's Scrooge is now much more of a predatory lender, who seems to take delight in seeing the poverty of his fellow citizens, and gloats over his riches like Alberich and the Rhine gold. Several of the supporting characters emphasize with great eloquence the "It takes a village" mentality, making it clear that charity and compassion are necessary far beyond the Christmas season. It's no secret to local theatre-goers that director Henderson likes to liven up material that needs it with inventive staging. I'd love to see him take this overall production theme - music, costumes, set design - and apply it to some classic of the stage like Shakespeare or Aristophanes.
At this point, one is likely to do one of two things. Either you will say "Wow - a Dickens classic with a twist, actors playing live music, Avery Bateman beatboxing, Catherine Hunsinger playing the cello and dressed as a steampunk babe - I've got to make reservations now!!" Or all of that that may sound utterly ridiculous. I must say that I had no real interest in seeing the story of Scrooge yet again, but I enjoyed this production; however, I generally enjoy these performers, and the way Henderson often toys with narrative technique for maximum dramatic effect. Box office for this show will likely determine whether Trustus experiments more in this direction, or less. But as I often find myself saying with local productions, either way, the people involved do a great job.
A Christmas Carol runs through Saturday, December 21st; contact the Trustus box office at 803-2254-9732 for more information, or visit www.trustus.org.
~ August Krickel