BWW Review: Traditional Marionettes Update the Scrooge Story in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, OY! HANUKKAH, MERRY KWANZAA, HAPPY RAMADAN at Theater For The New City
If you've seen Drunk History on television you will understand the vibe of this show. Imagine you have an elderly uncle who is of Czech descent. He has a marvelous collection of marionettes. After a few shots of Becherovka he invites the family down into the basement for an impromptu retelling (and updating) of a Christmas classic. That is the best way to describe A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan.
I visited Prague in 2018 and saw Don Giovanni at the National Marionette Theatre. The art form is centuries old. As the program notes, the typical puppeteering family owned a portable theater including a stage and about twenty marionettes. The four primary backdrops would be a room, a village, a royal castle and a forest. They would transport these materials from one venue to the next on wheelbarrow. Seeing a live version of this history is certainly fascinating to experience.
One performer would produce all of the voices and be the main puppet operator. That is the format followed in this production. Vít Horejš founded the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre in 1990 using two-century old puppets which he found in the Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. For the Bob Cratchit character, he uses a puppet from his mother's identical set that he played with as a child. The backstory of this production is rich with memories of Old World traditions.
As the title suggests, however, New World inclusiveness is the attempted update in this holiday offering. Lyrics in the opening song, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" are rewritten to celebrate other faiths and cultures. The idea of opening up Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to be religiously diverse is inspired. Mr. Horejš even makes jokes about his update. During a dreidel scene he remarks "you have to save that multi-cultural holiday stuff" for"centuries later."
Tongue in cheek line deliveries and self-aware humor fill this show winningly. Scrooge's nephew Fred is wearing a fashionable outfit and repeatedly proclaims, "don't you just love it?" Marley is represented by a cleverly designed chain puppet. During an interchange with Scrooge, he admonishes "I didn't come from the grave to argue over tenses."
The marionettes are made by Miloš Kasal, Václav Krcál and "unknown Czech folk artists." As a result, certain cast members fill in as best they can. Twins in the Cratchit house have beards. Their mother tells them to take them off. "We can't," they say, since they are made out of porcelain. Good spirited quirkiness is evident throughout the show.
Politics play a role as well. Dickens' tale is famously reflective about the society he observed. Today, Mr. Horejš notes, "being poor is not 'in' anymore." He elaborates: "what's wrong with bundling up some subprime mortgages?" Or "building hotels and casinos and defaulting on the loans?" Bah Humbug!
The idea for this show is terrific but the execution is wanting. Two women assist filling in the gaps with holiday songs sung in Czech, English, Hebrew, Slovak, Spanish and Swahili. Valois Mickens and Katarina Vizina are fun sidekicks. Everything moves too slowly, however, from set changes to dialogue. Admiration falls by the wayside and the experience becomes a bit of a slog to endure.
In the basement space of Theater for the New City, there is a strong sense of being with your Czech uncle on Christmas Eve. He brings out his toys and ad libs this renowned story. Since your family is now more diverse, he throws in other references to be more inclusive. Hanukkah is far more represented, however, than Kwanzaa and Ramadan, despite relatively equal billing in the title. This inexpensive and unique diversion will definitely take you back in time to a theatrical history that is remarkably still alive.
A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramandan will be performed at the Theater for the New City until January 5, 2020.