Dan Pessano directs a brisk and bountiful production of “A Christmas Carol” at the 2nd Space Theatre. Ever since the show opened the first week in November, a large and holiday-spirit-filled cast has been entertaining audiences with the classic tale.
It can be hard for me to get into the Christmas mood that early in the calendar, which is probably one reason why I put off seeing the production near the beginning of the run; Thanksgiving travel plans out-of-state and lots of other theater commitments also impacted my reviewing schedule.
But I finally got over to see the Good Company Players production last weekend. It’s a joy. Pessano uses a bare-bones adaptation of the Dickens novel by playwright Romulus Linney to streamline and focus the show. (The running time is less than 90 minutes, including intermission.) But this just isn’t a case of slicing away text to make a shorter show. Linney condenses things, yes, but Pessano also finds his own way to make the experience feel fresh and newly insightful. (It actually reminds me of what Brad Myers at Fresno State managed to do with his crisp new production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”) The result is a production that feels sleek yet cheerily old-fashioned, a nice combination.
How does Pessano make it happen? By acknowledging two important things. The first is the oversized role that the Dickens classic plays in contemporary culture. Like it or not, “A Christmas Carol” has become the Christmas story (or at least one close in contention with the version involving a virgin birth in a manger). The idea of a “Scrooge” as a miserly, bitter old man who hates Christmas is a part of our common vocabulary, and so is the theme of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future dropping in to teach a lesson about priorities in life. We’ve seen so many movie adaptations, TV specials, animated knock-offs and expensive picture books that the narrative is embedded in the collective cultural consciousness.
That’s why Pessano and his cast can breeze through certain aspects of the story. We don’t need to spend half an hour with Christmas Past to get a picture of Scrooge’s sad childhood. Nor do we need to dwell on the medical challenges of Tiny Tim, nor the inherent goodness of his father, Bob Cratchit, nor the well-meaning impulses of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. It’s all shorthand to us.
The other important thing Pessano realizes is that “A Christmas Carol” has become a visual experience for most people. (Even those who read the original novel are likely drawing forth mental images based on movies or stage productions they’ve seen.) Using some fancy creative techniques (but still very doable for a budget-minded theater company), Pessano’s design team delivers some fine effects. Joielle Adams’ lighting design is especially effective, giving us a cascade of visuals that include spinning clock hands, creepy shadows and wavy designs. Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s costumes, while happily period authentic, also include some sharp surprises. (At one point a man sitting near me gasped when one of the ghosts appeared.) There’s nothing too gimmicky in terms of the visuals; the narrative still takes precedence. But it’s enough to keep the atmosphere charged.
I realize that I sound as giddy as Scrooge on Christmas morning. But lest you write me off as some kind of “A Christmas Carol” softie, rest assured that’s not the case. I was not impressed with the 2013 GCP production of the play, offering my own “Bah, Humbug” review.
The cast in this new GCP production is huge, which adds to the festive feel. Noel Adams makes a robust Scrooge, laying on the crankiness in the first third of the show, then transforming into a pussycat for the rest. Among the standouts: I was especially taken with Daniel Sutherland as a charming Ghost of Christmas Past; Benjamin Geddert as a pleasant Fred; Noah Miranda as Young Scrooge; Paige Tucker as a charming Belle; and, of course, Vinny Folmer as a cute-as-a-button Tiny Tim.
Linda Amaral’s simple but chipper choreography adds a merry physicality to the proceedings.
Most of all, though, it’s the direction that makes this production so eloquent. Pessano knows how to make the Christmas spirit come alive on stage, even with a story many of us know almost by heart. That’s a great gift this time of year.
“A Christmas Carol,” through Dec. 23, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. Tickets are $20 general, $17 students and seniors.
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