BWW Review: No Humbug Here - Trinity Rep's Spirited CHRISTMAS CAROL Rings in the Season
Every year, Trinity Repertory Company adds a new spin to its beloved adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Trinity's talented cast and masterful storytelling make nearly any setting work, whether Ebenezer Scrooge walks the snowy streets of Victorian London or keeps a miserly eye on his office electric and heating bills in the 1950s. This year's production is no exception; in fact, the 2016 Christmas Carol is one of Trinity's most unique and intriguing Yuletide offerings to date.
The show opens with a present-day frame tale. On Christmas Eve, three children gather around their grandparents for a reading of A Christmas Carol. When their workaholic father finally arrives home, he won't budge away from his briefcase. His frustrated young son angrily tosses Dickens' tale on the desk, calling his father a "Scrooge." This accusation finally captures the father's attention. He takes up the book and starts to read, transitioning to the role of narrator as the story comes to life in the family living room.
The children envision their grandfather as the penny-pinching Ebenezer, their grandmother as Jacob Marley, and themselves in any number of parts. While the language and many of the period costumes establish Scrooge in his familiar Dickensian setting, the children's imaginations influence the overall look and feel of the unfolding story.
The end result is A Christmas Carol with a twist: Trinity's production, in its script and its stagecraft, simultaneously references elements of both nineteenth-century England and contemporary America. Such an original approach needs strong guidance to be successful, and director James Dean Palmer provides that steady hand. Under Palmer's watchful eye, modern-day references never overwhelm or distract from the narrative. Instead, they are used to enhance the storytelling. For example, Jacob Marley (Anne Scurria) arrives in Scrooge's rooms dressed not in ragged ghostly robes, but in Grandma's tattered bathrobe. What begins with a chuckle ends on a shiver as a grim horde of similarly clad shades join in Marley's tormented lament. Where Victorian-era Marley stands at a modest distance from the audience, these writhing, terry-cloth garbed spirits strike uncomfortably close to home.
Trinity's outstanding cast is at its very best in this Christmas Carol. Brian McEleney returns to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge for a fifth time and the quality of his characterization has never been better. All the warmth and gentle good humor he radiates as the grandfather melts away by degrees as he layers on various garments from Scrooge's wardrobe. By the time the old humbug is in his frock coat counting out his pounds and pence, the flinty, unyielding expression in McEleney's eyes reads as downright menacing. McEleney brings depth to the performance, adding wonderful touches of comedy early on without compromising his close-fisted, hard-hearted character. And while there is humor in Scrooge's redemption scene, McEleney plays it perceptively rather than centering the moment on laughs. He builds up Scrooge's joy and giddiness as a genuine expression of his new outlook on life.
Scrooge's ghostly visitors sport less fearful aspects this season, but their messages remain uncompromised and hard-hitting as ever. Scurria leads off the spectral quartet by infusing Marley's dire warnings with an edge of anger. Scurria's Marley shows not a drop of patience with Scrooge's protestations. Her bearing alone reflects her acute awareness of the eternal torment ahead, and her unwavering intensity communicates clearly that ignoring Marley's counsel carries real consequences.
Rebecca Gibel's sprightly Ghost of the Past enjoys an unforgettable, acrobatic entrance (McEleney's expression is priceless here) and a glittering, bubbly persona to match. Gibel excels at expressing Christmas Past's vivacious twinkle and playfulness even as the shade unflinchingly presents mounting evidence in the case against Scrooge. When McEleney's Scrooge smarts and snarls at the spirit for dredging up old hurts, Gibel stills the sparkle nicely to deliver Christmas Past's final reproach with otherworldly detachment.
As with Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present's glamorous persona can't be taken at face value. Rachael Warren inhabits this effervescent character from the top of her shimmering, metallic tresses to the tips of her glitzy go-go boots. She embodies luminous Christmas spirit one moment, dancing across the stage light as air, then accuses Scrooge in resolutely authoritative terms the next. The spirit's over-the-top appearance practically fades to the background as Warren delivers her "surplus population" rebuke and when she introduces Scrooge to Ignorance and Want. Warren also covers several other roles, showing amazing versatility as she transitions from little Scrooge's unfeeling, authoritarian schoolmaster to older Scrooge's enthusiastically opportunistic charwoman.
Like Warren, most all of Trinity's cast members take on multiple roles. In addition to Grandma and Jacob Marley, Scurria also turns in a fabulous portrayal of the seedy Old Jo. Stephen Thorne is delightful as the eccentric, fun-loving, and somewhat unpredictable Mr. Fezziwig, and he offers a touching depiction of an impoverished man desperately imploring Scrooge for assistance. Matt Ketai stands out on stage no matter what his part, from chorus member to the earnest Dick Wilkins. Together, Thorne and Ketai steal the spotlight as a Tweedledum/Tweedledee-esque pair of solicitors for the poor. Michael Mahoney is fittingly buoyant as Scrooge's nephew, Fred, and he gradually traces the progression from naiveté to growing hardness in Young Scrooge. Kamili Okweni Feelings' rich speaking voice and easy appeal serve him well both as the children's father and in his expanded role as Narrator.
Special mention and real applause must go to this year's children's cast. Trinity has gathered a remarkable trio of young performers. From the moment they deliver the theater's emergency procedures at curtain up, they have the audience charmed to the back row. But their involvement this season goes beyond the simple recitation of Dickens' familiar lines. Lillian Johnson, Lana Lacombe, and Gustavo Londono - the Green Cast - play a host of different roles, from the modern-day family to Bob Cratchit's brood to nineteenth-century child laborers to various ghostly figures. These youngsters are fine actors in their own right, true rising stars, and they easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the seasoned professionals on stage.
Trinity's artistic team likewise rises to the occasion for this year's Carol. Michael McGarty's sets are versatile with numerous platforms, windows, and doors serving both as entry points and performance areas. The walls of the set turn transparent or opaque based on Seth Reiser's lighting scheme, providing even more places for characters to roam. Costumes by Michael Krass range from period gowns and top hats to neon-bright leggings and fuzzy pajamas, suiting both the characters' personalities and the dual time frames of this production. The 2016 Christmas Carol also features added musical numbers - a joy with this cast's superb vocal talents - and Michael Rice's musical direction allows each note of each song resonate to its fullest.
A Christmas Carol plays Trinity Repertory Company's Chace Theater through December 31, 2016. Tickets are available online at www.trinityrep.com, by phone (401) 351-4242, or by visiting the box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. Adult ticket prices range from $25-$100 and children's tickets are $25-50 (ages 2-14). Contact the box office for group rate information.
Photo by Mark Turek