Thursday, December 12, 2002

It’s the script, stupid: Some flat performances can’t ruin A Christmas Carol

Published in the Portland Phoenix

I have a confession. Even after years in the news business that should teach me to know better, I’ve come to expect Christmas Day off. Though, as Ebenezer Scrooge asks Bob Cratchit to do, I will usually have to come in “all the earlier the next day to make up for it.” Deadlines and publications never relent, even for the most special and wondrous of holidays.

Yet my boss is no Scrooge: She has a business to run and the readers must have their newspapers, but she finds time to remind us, her employees, that she has learned the lesson Dickens teaches — every year since its first publication, six days before Christmas, 1843 — through A Christmas Carol.

Time to relax, to be with families and friends, and to have fun, make merry, and laugh: These are the goals for which everyone, rich or poor, young or old, banker or beggar, is really working. But they are easily forgotten amid the daily grind. Portland Stage Company — along with a number of other local theater companies — annually takes a couple of hours to remind us, with A Christmas Carol, of all the love and joy in the world, and the true bliss that sharing can bring to our mortal existences.

The power of this play comes primarily from the writing itself, the mastery of Dickens’s painting of a world and a man remade by memory, reflection, and fear. In this production, however, Anita Stewart’s directing fails to serve the writing, instead becoming a competing force on stage.

It means this play’s role as a holiday-spirit reminder falls flat, failing to paint with power either the agonizing picture of desperation before Scrooge’s enlightenment or the true nature of his transformation. It does, however, retain its strength as a classic of Christmas storytelling and a heartwarming reminder of the importance of joy.

The show begins with a performance by the audience of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in which my section’s leader, a young-teenage girl with braids and braces, was in earnest for us to perform well. It was as if by the power of her will alone, she could turn our motley crew of spectators into the “three French hens” we were singing about.

As the play itself begins — with a powerful Scrooge (Tom Ford) in his countinghouse, glowering at his nephew Fred’s (James Hoban) holiday cheer, and berating Bob Cratchit (Mark Honan), who departs late of a Christmas Eve with a much-begrudged Christmas bonus in hand — I felt myself cowering alongside Cratchit, picturing, instead of Scrooge, past supervisors concerned not about how I would spend my holiday or whether I would even celebrate. Instead, they, like Scrooge, worried about looming project deadlines, upcoming events needing preparation and, most of all, themselves.

I count myself lucky that this year, I do not have such a boss. But I am not sure the world has come far from the 1840s England of Charles Dickens, with its waifs and poor grown-ups huddled round braziers, being scattered by the vicious charge of a cruel and irritated wealthy man wielding a cane and a sense of his own self-righteousness.

Dickens (who appears in the production as a narrator played by Edward Reichert) himself suffered poverty and despair, toiling in a debtors’ prison workshop for several months as a boy, while his father paid off creditors. In this story and others, he rails against people like the bosses many still have today. Rather than concerning themselves with the humanity of their employees, Dickens’s wealthy — Scrooge among them — are the utilitarian exploiters feared in today’s world as much as they were 150 years ago.

Portland Stage Company’s weaknesses are in the subtleties, where Dickens excelled. While the fear on Scrooge’s face is very real when he speaks to the Ghost of Christmas Past (Natalie Rose Liberace, who plays all the Christmas ghosts), the sense of doom and dread Dickens writes into that darkly shrouded spectre is missing. So, too, are the senses of urgency on the faces of Ignorance and Want, the urchins who emerge from the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Scrooge’s delivery, perhaps made desperate after seven years of annual shows at PSC (though this is Ford’s first year in the role), is more preachy than revelatory, more exhortation than exultation. Even his “Bah! Humbug!” is without real feeling. Scrooge pleads with the audience to come with him in the spiritual journey, though we need rather to be forced along, as he is by the spirits.

The lighting and ingenious set design, as well as the sound, overlaying multiple effects and voices, are in combination more enthralling than the performance itself. The story does, however, strongly keep its main point, a reminder that lines at the local shopping centers are neither as bad — nor as necessary — as they might be perceived to be.

The children, too, are strong and energetic reminders that youth and hope spring eternal. Maybe — just maybe — your boss will see this show and remember Dickens’s lesson: We who work for our living are worthy of, deserve, and are entitled to our leisure time and our family lives, holiday or not.

A Christmas Carol

Written by Charles Dickens, adapted by Portland Stage Company. Directed by Anita Stewart. With Elizabeth Chambers, James Hoban, Mark Honan, Tom Ford, Natalie Rose Liberace, Daniel Noel, Kelli Putnam, and Edward Reichert. At Portland Stage Company through Dec. 24. Call (207) 774-0465.