As I sat in the darkened Johnson Theatre at TPAC on Saturday night, I considered the various ways that “A Christmas Carol,” a real chestnut if ever there was one, could serve as an allegory for modern times. For instance, Ebeneezer Scrooge certainly votes Libertarian and probably follows the Westboro Baptist Church on Facebook. I’m guessing he heartily agreed with televangelist Joel Osteen’s decision to keep his megachurch arena closed to people fleeing Hurricane Harvey in 2017. He may even kick puppies for fun. What Scrooge does not do for anyone is cut a check without a quid pro quo attached. (Too soon?)
It’s uncomfortable to consider that this Charles Dickens story, published 176 years ago, remains as depressingly relevant today as it did in the moment of its creation. Only today, the haves have a whole hell of a lot more. It should come as no surprise to you that Mister Scrooge is a real S.O.B. But this Christmas season, the people who so richly deserve a righteous moral ass-kicking from the Spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Future are most certainly not getting one. (That is unless Nancy Pelosi is the Spirit of Christmas Past and gets to show us all of Scrooge’s – erm, Trump’s nasty-wasty skeletons in the closet. In that case, bring it on, Madame Speaker…)
What’s unique about Nashville Repertory Theatre’s 2019 production is that it’s a world inhabited by five actors. And four of them play a vast number of other characters. Only Brian Russell plays the same character the entire time and he’s frankly a delight as Ebeneezer Scrooge.
You’re sitting there doing the math in your head. Three ghosts, Bob Cratchit and his family, Scrooge’s nephew and his wife, Isabella (Scrooge’s erstwhile flame), lots of other peripheral characters, and maybe even a partridge in a pear tree. Yes, four actors – two men, two women – play the remaining two dozen characters. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning all at once, especially when the play sometimes gets in its own way.
You see, four people playing an entire Victorian world is just… it’s a lot. If you’ve ever read much Dickens you know that the characters are abundant. And while there are costume and accent changes, it still sometimes takes a moment to disconnect the synapses of your brain from the fact that Actor Two was just someone totally different 25 seconds ago. One of those things. Playwright Patrick Barlow’s interpretation keeps a brisk pace, but sometimes I wished for just one more actor onstage to take some of the heavy lifting away.
In spite of the occasional confusion the ensemble is very good. Shawn Knight variously tackles Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and a young Ebeneezer with great understanding of separating his parts. Mallory Mundy’s and Joy Pointe’s Ghosts are splendid and their roles as love interests allow them to show off great versatility. And Jonah Jackson as a Ghost, Fezziwig, and Scrooge’s Nephew Fred is a splendid, frantic study in acting. But it’s Brian Russell’s Scrooge who leaves you with the fullest idea of the range of his talents.
Since Russell holds forth as Scrooge from beginning to end, he’s allowed most engaging work in the piece. It is, therefore, a great joy to tell you how wicked he truly gets to be. There is zero doubt that if he had to choose between picking up a coin off the street or saving a child from being hit by a horse-drawn carriage, that the coin will win every time. Seriously, if he’d come onstage in a MAGA hat, I probably wouldn’t have been shocked.
Gary Hoff’s scenic design is, as always, lovely to look at and very versatile. The faux stonework evokes some mythic medieval, vaguely Celtic nature that feels almost elemental to this early Victorian Englishness. (Even if Big Ben’s clockface wasn’t completed until 1859, it makes a perfectly identifiable piece of the stage floor. But we’ll let that fly.) June Kingsbury’s costumes are at one sumptuous, whackadoo, and a little scary. Special plaudits must go to the gorgeous looks designed for the Christmas ghosts.
And now for the inevitable “but…” portion. Towards the end of the second act, the play dances with two left feet. And it trips, spilling its drink and probably should be escorted out by security for its own good and put into a Lyft to go home and sleep it off. This isn’t on the director, cast, or anyone besides the playwright. Some of you may be too young to get the St. Elsewhere snowglobe reference, but it’s probably not a good idea to get all meta and weird on a classic like A Christmas Carol. Breaking the fourth wall is cute on occasion, but not if you’re unwilling to commit to it for the long haul (ala Parks and Recreation on TV). This time, it just felt confusing and like Patrick Barlow rolled the dice on a device that ultimately failed him.
Some of the theatrical devices used to represent other characters are cute. As for Tiny Tim… God needs to bless because… wow. I’ll put it this way: the heartbreaking character should probably not cause nervous laughter. And there was plenty of that.
A Christmas Carol, no matter what, remains a classic allegory of greed and reminds us of Thomas Gray’s 1750 poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”
Ebeneezer Scrooge certainly represents our worst impulses, the capitalist nightmare run rampant. The blessing is that he is reminded of his true nature and actually listens and learns his lesson. As to whether we heed our better angels, well, it’s certainly Charles Dickens’ hope that we will, not just at Christmas but year round. And I hope you’ll heed the call to get yourself to TPAC’s Johnson Theatre sometime before December 22nd when A Christmas Carol closes. It’s certainly an entertaining evening and, as the show’s artwork suggests, “It’s not what you expect.”