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Shakespeare Theatre Serves Up Stylized ‘Christmas Carol’

Liz Keill

Monday, December 5, 2011 • 6:21pm

MADISON, NJ - “A Christmas Carol,” in one form or another, it seems, has been done to death. And wouldn’t Charles Dickens like to be collecting royalties for all those good, bad and so-so productions?
 
Those of us who have seen it multiple times no doubt have our favorite versions, whether it’s the 1950’s movie with Alastair Sim, a stage musical, a television production or Patrick Stewart’s one-man show. Neil Bartlett’s interpretation was last performed at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison in 2007.
 
Director Bonnie Monte has assembled a supremely talented cast of 11, headed by Philip Goodwin as Ebenezer Scrooge. Goodwin effectively transforms himself from the mean-spirited employer to a warm, generous soul.  ‘Bah Humbug” is overdone in the beginning, when it’s far more effective as a response to nephew Fred and used sparingly.
 
Ames Adamson is delightful in a number of roles, especially as one of the conniving businessmen who calls on Scrooge. Greg Jackson, another NJST regular, is particularly moving after the death of Tiny Tim as he tries his best to carry on. Clark Carmichael, now in his ninth season with NJST, makes an ebullient appearance as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Also in the cast are John Ahlin, Susan Maris, Erin Partin, Cameron Berner, Erica Knight and Tina Stafford.
 
For the most part, these actors shift smoothly from one character to another. Still, the lack of real children in the cast stands out. Blake Pfeil, as likeable as he is, can’t quite bring off the winsomeness of Tiny Tim. Other actors appearing as children are more grating than believable.
 
The same is true for the bare-bones set, with a door that turns around, a raised platform at the rear of the stage and swirling mists, presumably to give us a sense of the passage of time. There’s no doubt that ‘time’ and ‘light’ are practically characters themselves. But the subtlety was lost on me. Seeing Adamson as a turkey in a wheelbarrow struck me as over-the-top silliness that serves no purpose.
 
It may be a matter of contrast. There’s very little relief from the dark stage, so you don’t have a sense of joyous family moments in comparison to Scrooge’s bleak, lonely life.
 
With playwright Bartlett’s determination to make this Carol ‘different,’  much of the warmth and humanity is lost. You won’t hear any Christmas carols in the background. Rick Knutsen’s musical notes hint at some sort of chimes as two or three actors gather with bits of little known Victorian carols.  Then we have the metronome sounds of the clerks scratching at their desks that become a motif of sorts.
 
Costumes by Hugh Hanson are fine for the London gentlemen, but miss the mark with the ghosts. What is Marley supposed to be? A slithering snake? Where are the chains that he drags with him throughout eternity?  Why is the Ghost of Christmas Past dressed in a bouffant gown? What sort of mesh costume covers the Ghost of Christmas Present? What does it mean?  When the two starving children, Ignorance and Greed, are shown they’re wearing masks and scamper around the stage.
 
Audiences may find this offbeat production appealing and it does, in its way, convey the contrast between greed and goodness.  Some scenes work effectively, especially in Act II.
 
Bartlett’s  “A Christmas Carol” is a puzzle. There’s no doubt symbolism wrapped up in any number of the choices made, which may make it fascinating and intriguing for some. Certainly the audience on opening night was responsive to the imaginative approach to this classic.
 
“A Christmas Carol” continues through Jan. 1.  The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is located on the campus of Drew University in Madison. For tickets, call 973-408-5656 or visit ShakespeareNJ.org.
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