Arts theater review

A warm and communal ‘Christmas Carol’

Creative direction reinvigorates this classic Christmas tale

A Christmas Carol
Written by Charles Dickens
Directed and adapted by Debra Wise
Nov. 24–Dec. 31, 2017
Central Square Theater

The first thing one notices when entering the theater is the arena of seats around the stage. It is this theatre-in-the-round presentation which sets the foundation for Debra Wise’s community-engaging adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge is reimagined as a communal retelling complete with family friendly attractions. Before the show started, I watched kids gather around a Punch and Judy skit, a cast member delight audience members with magic tricks, and another member beat a makeshift drum made out of a plastic bucket in a shopping cart. Despite the flaws of this production, Wise’s direction and Ken Cheeseman’s performance as Scrooge convey the Christmas spirit of bonding and charitable giving.

In Dickens’ story, Scrooge changes his ways from being stingy and holiday-despising to charitable and joyful after receiving visitations from three ghosts. In this production, the story is framed as a retelling by the community, in which cast members alternate as the narrator while also playing various characters. The result is that the play is mostly an ensemble effort, since cast members take on multiple roles. The exception of course is the role of Scrooge, which Cheeseman portrays excellently. Cheeseman excels at displaying Scrooge’s emotional extremes: his comedic timing and excitement as the giddy Scrooge is great fun to watch while his coldness as the bitter Scrooge is menacing. Another standout performance came from Vincent Ernest Siders as the Ghost of Christmas Present, who had great charisma and humor in the roles he inhabited. The other cast members did well in their multiplicity of roles as well. However, poor diction and accents sometimes obscured Dickens’ language (which is not the simplest to begin with), and I felt lost at times trying to keep up with the dialogue.

The show was very technically ambitious with its set design. Above the seats were murals or projections of the entire town, creating the close-knit feeling in which the story vouches for in the Christmas spirit. Numerous props wheel onto the stage, ranging from houses of the village to Scrooge’s furniture, impressive in quantity alone. Sound prominently features as well, creating a festive atmosphere, and I had no complaints with regards to the acoustics. Various instruments such as the violin and aforementioned makeshift drum appeared, creating somewhat of a spectacle. Individual singers gave great performances, but ensemble singing was rocky at times due to the lack of a conductor keeping the actors in tempo.

One of the major aspects of this production is audience participation. Audience members are invited to join the dancing onstage as Scrooge remembers a joyous past Christmas and sing Christmas carols with the rest of the cast.

There are some notable similarities between this production and Michael Arden’s recently opened revival of Once on This Island at the Circle in the Square Theatre; the central staging, recycled instruments, and various storytellers are all common features. In Once on This Island, the story longs for a reunification of a Haitian society split by class and skin color. Similarly, A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge being a part of the community he initially scorned. This gathering of a community appears again through the framing device and through the audience who have come to enjoy a production from a local theatre. Through Wise’s direction, A Christmas Carol goes to the heart of Christmas and theatre, where a group of people enjoy a shared experience.