by Nancy Grossman, Broadway World
Chestnuts roasting on an open flame, bell ringers fervently toiling in the courtyard tower, and carols emanating from a sonorous brass quintet were among the panoply of sensory stimuli surrounding the Elements Theatre Company presentation of A Christmas Carol at the Church of the Transfiguration at Rock Harbor in Orleans that ran for two weekends in December. Under the direction of Sr. Danielle Dwyer, a chorus of eight and nearly a dozen actors played multiple roles in the Readers’ Theatre format of John Mortimer’s adaptation of the venerable story by Charles Dickens. Set in London in 1843, the timeless tale was the thirty-one year old Dickens’ Christmas gift for the world; more than a century and a half later, it endures, and it virtually glittered in Elements’ dramatic interpretation. Could there be a more appropriate setting for the transformational journey of Ebenezer Scrooge than the sanctuary of the Church of the Transfiguration?
Uniformly dressed in outfits of simple black and white or only black, the ensemble sat behind music stands draped in black on a tiered platform flanked by two lamp posts and two Christmas trees strung with white lights. London scenes from the story were projected on the rear wall and a modicum of props was used, such as chimes to indicate the passing hours, a pair of hats to suggest the Spirits of Christmas Past and Present, and a wooden bench for the Cratchit family’s hearth. However, the dearth of set pieces was made up for by atmospheric effects – foggy mist oozing down the tiers, lighting, and sound – all in service to the ghostly aspects of the story, and the rich layer of musical underscoring by the brass quintet and a harpsichord. Most importantly, Sr. Dwyer’s narration and the storytelling talents of the cast gave life to the words of Dickens with vivacity unexpected in a staged reading. Brad Lussier brought nuance to his portrayal of Scrooge, screwing up his face and spitting out his lines to show his irascible nature at the outset, and gradually softening as he accepted the lessons from the Spirits. By the time he awoke on Christmas morning as a changed man, Lussier’s Scrooge appeared to be lighter on his feet, spoke in a higher tone of voice, and stretched his smile from ear to ear. His joy was on a par with that shown by Kyle Norman as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, undeterred by his uncle’s utterings of “Bah, humbug!” and the optimistic Bob Cratchit, warmly inhabited by Br. Stephen Velie.
The Spirits were appropriately funny or scary as played by Chris Kanaga (Jacob Marley’s Ghost and The Spirit of Christmas Present) and Ellen Ortolani (The Spirit of Christmas Past); The Spirit of Christmas Future was a mournful, moaning group effort by the chorus octet, donning black hoods to add to the effect. Ortolani’s cheerfulness made her a good match with Velie as Mrs. Cratchit, but she also offered some authentic harsh feelings about Mr. Scrooge. Peter Haig was masterful in a variety of roles, distinguishing the First Portly Gentleman from Fezziwig, the Headmaster, and Belle’s Husband, among others. In a brief appearance, the tenderness of Scrooge’s sister Fan was shown by Sr. Phoenix Catlin, and Heather Norman conveyed the heartbreak of Belle when she broke off her engagement with young Ebenezer (Jeremy Haig). The chorus used a multitude of inflections, gestures, and facial expressions, and they each portrayed individual characters, as well. Sr. Dwyer even got into the act as the Charwoman and seemed to relish every moment.
One might think that there’s nothing left to discover in A Christmas Carol, but experiencing it in a stripped-down, minimalist production allows the focus to shift to the dialogue and the emotions expressed by the author’s choice of words. In the Readers’ Theatre format, the actors are looking at and speaking to the audience rather than each other, including us in the conversation, making us feel as if we are part of the action. If Ebenezer Scrooge is Everyman, then his journey is our journey, his lessons are our lessons, and his redemption is our redemption. This idea may have hit home before, but Elements Theatre Company’s rendition felt different, more compelling, and more transforming. Perhaps it was the requirement that we use our own imaginations to fill in the pictures as we listened to the words; we’ve heard them all before, but not quite like this, and not in these hallowed surroundings.