Pacific Theatre's A Christmas Carol is for purists
Adapted by Ron Reed from the novel by Charles Dickens. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Thursday, December 8. Continues until December 31.
No Bill Murray as a cynical TV executive, no Kermit the Frog as the greenest Bob Cratchit ever: Ron Reed’s adaptation is A Christmas Carol for purists.
Reed sticks close to Charles Dickens’s original text, which is its first great strength. In fact, Reed, who also stars in this production, starts the show by reading from the novel. And, throughout the evening, I was delighted to hear lovely sentences and phrases that I’d never encountered before. On the off chance that you don’t know the story, Scrooge, a miser, is visited by three spirits, one each for Christmas past, present, and yet to come. In Reed’s version, the Spirit of Christmas Past shows Scrooge his boyhood, “…and Scrooge sat down and wept to see his poor, forgotten self as he used to be.”
The second central strength of this mounting is Reed’s performance. He starts by simply voicing the characters as he reads the book, but he soon moves into full enactments of multiple-character scenes. A Christmas Carol is fundamentally about generosity, and so is Reed’s work. Rather than showing off, the actor impresses with his subtlety and his affection for the characters. I especially enjoyed it when Reed embodied Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his family. His Mrs. Cratchit is timorous and furious, his Cratchit a liquid mixture of optimism and grief. And Reed expresses Scrooge’s giddily ecstatic spiritual rebirth better than anybody I’ve seen do it since Alistair Sim set the standard in the classic 1951 movie.
The one significant downside in Reed’s adaptation is that it is conceptually vague, a problem that’s exacerbated by Sarah Rodgers’s direction. It feels like this production wants to be a solo show, but Reed performs with Kathleen Nisbet, who plays the fiddle, acts as a foley artist—rattling the chains of Marley, the ghost, for instance—and speaks occasionally. It’s very odd to have Nisbet there, but mostly mute. Why doesn’t she play Belle, the youthful Scrooge’s fiancée, for instance? The moments when Nisbet does speak feel as random as they are surprising. If the physical storytelling needs an assistant, why not give that assistant a more clearly defined role? Who the heck is Nisbet’s character supposed to be, or Reed’s narrator character for that matter? In this version, their reality feels half-grounded: Reed seems to be a toy-maker who shuts his shop then sets about to tell the tale with his semi-mute companion, but what’s their relationship? Why are they doing this? And who are they doing it for? Under Rodgers’s direction, the performers don’t acknowledge the audience until they’re well into the tale, and then they suddenly start to break the fourth wall. If they are simply storytellers, maybe even storytellers who have traveled from another time, why not let them be that and, as such, acknowledge the audience from the beginning?
All of this said, the physical production is lovely. Bryan Pollock fills his set with toys that the two actors use to tell the tale: dolls, a toy house, a tiny ship, and so on. Mostly, this is terrific: Nisbet opens a pop-up book to reveal a paper fire. Sometimes, it’s muddy: Reed’s Scrooge presents his old employer, Fezziwig, using a marionette, but he doesn’t know how to work the strings. Lauchlin Johnston provides the lush lighting.
And, in the end, the gift is the story. That story comes through as clear as a Christmas bell.