Sunday, December 24, 2017

New tech, old feeling, remarkable effect in TFTNC's "A Christmas Carol"

Hi everybody. I know it has been a while since I have posted anything here, much less a theater review, but I really wanted to share what I experienced at last night's performance of David Zen Mansley's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at Theatre for the New City.

I have been going to the Halloween party at Theatre for the New City for many years, and it has always given me a sort of post-apocalyptic feeling. The walls are black, the seats are low-cost, the tech is rudimentary, and everyone is dressed as if they are wearing whatever they could find and put together creatively. The performances are gloriously inspired and talented, but with that low-budget, can-do eccentricity and anti-professional sheen that says "this is not a glossy Broadway production that Aunt Edna and her husband bought tickets to because it was based on that favorite movie and stars that movie star who was in that movie she liked."

My theory of the post-apocalypse aesthetic is that the survivors will be wearing, decorating, and entertaining with whatever they can find, despite heir imperfections and appropriateness. However, this does put the subject of the presentation into a new, unfamiliar context that perhaps can bring out some tort of deeper meaning or new revelation from the source material. Last night's performance was no exception to that, and it worked marvelously!

There is a balance in any production between the text, the set, the props, the cast, and showmanship. (and musical numbers, if applicable). I have seen this story played out with Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Henry Winkler, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine with the Muppets, Mr. Magoo, and an an animated TV special (some of these several times), but never was that balance so finely attuned that every element of the story came through as clearly as it did in this version.

The set was minimal, but with a strong unified aesthetic. The one room served (depending on where on the stage the action played and which characters were present) as Scrooge's office, his bedroom,. the home of Bob Cratchit, and Joe's Beetling shop. There was a bed at stage right, a fireplace at stage left, a table downstage left, and a door in a corner upstage right. The back wall was a light tan color, fading into dark sepia at the edges.

It was against this back wall that Scrooge's visions appeared. They were projected video, but with the sepia tone, the old-timey look of the set and the low-tech production, I could not help but feel that I was watching an old silent film being projected. It felt not like the film was old, but that it was 1914 and I was watching a creative new use of the new medium of film to add a supernatural element to the production with this new special effect! The fact that the spirits and visions spoke did not take me out of that, I could have (if I cared) justified it by assuming it was an actor behind the screen or a Victrola being played simultaneously (I believe Thomas Edison invented a device that could do that).

All of the dreams and visions that Scrooge experienced were either shown on this screen or described in dialogue between Scrooge and the Spirits. It was through this that for the first time I learned about Scrooge's lonely childhood and how he was affected by the loss of his sister.

Another element of the production that played surprisingly well into the message of the story was the Cratchits' Christmas dinner. I don't know if it was due to budget, practicality, or a deliberate choice, but though the table was set with a full compliment of dishes, silverware, and drinking vessels, not a scrap of food could be seen. Bob Cratchit pantomimed serving the goose and the pudding, then taking the first bite of each. After each of those bites he praised the excellence and perfection of each dish to his wife, who blushed with effusive modesty. Whether or not it was a deliberate choice to have the plates bare and the cups empty, whether it was meant to be symbolic or deliberate, seeing the love and joy that the family could share without a scrap of food brought home the meaning of the season better than a hundred "Grinch that Stole Christmas" Broadway musicals.

It was also through the minimalism of the set, masterful editing of Dickens' text, and the spirited performance of the actors that never before did the good will of Scrooge's nephew and the mean-spirited opportunism of the vultures in the beetling shop come across so clearly and their import in the story be felt so well.

Mansley has produced this play annually for several years, and plans to continue doing so. I heartily encourage a visit to this play as part of a unique New York City experience of the season, and also to get a fresh perspective on the story and its meaning.

The original text:

Versions I have seen:

Versions I have not seen:




Inspired by the original...