A Christmas Carol
Also see Rob's review of A Christmas Story
Set in the Great Depression, the play centers on a motley crew of strangers stranded at a train station, all waiting for the same train to Chicago that has been delayed by a snowstorm. The first on stage are Nicholas, a toymaker played by Shannon Flynn, and Lillian, a mother with a criminal past played by Lauren Poole. Soon they are joined by a poor young couple, Beverly and John, played by Lila Martinez and Abe Jallad, respectively. Finally, there is the wealthy sophisticate Margaret (Heather Yeo) and a brother-sister Vaudevillian performer duo: Henry (Barney Lopez) and Rose (Katy Bowen). All of the performers, save for Martinez and Jallad, are Blackout Theatre Company members.
To pass the time, Henry and Rose decide to practice their act, which happens to be an ad-hoc version of A Christmas Carol, complete with instruments, ranging from a viola to a travel-size xylophone, and puppets to portray the spirits of Christmas past, present and future, as well as other characters. The seasoned cast excels at making a rehearsed show look improvised; the other characters timidly follow instructions from Henry and Rose at first, but as the play progresses they become more and more invested in their roles, and the audience becomes more invested as well. All of the props and costumes literally fit into a few traveling trunks, adding to the off-the-cuff feeling of it all.
The actors' performances are all outstanding, and each morphs effortlessly between the characters of "reality" and the characters of A Christmas Carol. Jallad, previously seen by this reviewer in Duke City Repertory Theatre's production of reasons to be pretty in August of 2011, makes an excellent Bob Cratchit. Cratchit seems in many ways to match Jallad's other character, the "real" John, happily married but struggling to make ends meet and provide a decent life for his family. Jallad's performance in both roles is honest and tender, capturing both the troubled life on the surface and the good heart underneath. Flynn skillfully portrays the anger, fear, shame, regret, and eventual hope that make up the multi-faceted character of Ebenezer Scrooge. All of the characters similarly warm up to their roles in this performance within a performance. Early on, the characters somewhat stumble through things, but by the time the Ghost of Christmas Present shows up they have become so engrossed that you almost forget that when the play started these were just strangers waiting for the same train.
The entire performance is enhanced by skillful light and sound effects as well as original music by Monica DeMarco. The lights often denote transitions between the "real" world of the play and the world of A Christmas Carol.
While the production maintains familiar and well-loved elements of the Dickens classic, there are many ways in which this is not your typical rendition of A Christmas Carol, such as the puppets. Before you start conjuring images of A Muppet Christmas Carol, though, let me explain: the puppets are characters, yes, but the actors who manipulate them are never invisible, and they become the character just as much as the puppet does. Poole controls the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is literally a mop head with a face (the other puppets look similarly homemade, and thus endearing), yet the audience never loses sight of Poole's own facial expressions. Similarly, Yeo manipulates the many tiny Cratchit children while she herself dons the temperament and attitudes of a young child. Not all of the puppets are funny or childlike, though; those representing Ignorance and Want are positivelyand fittinglyterrifying and rather like something you might see in a Tim Burton film.
I found Blackout's production to be much more enjoyable and refreshing than watching yet another version of this story that everyone already knows. The layering of the performance within the performance and the addition of different characters and unique props make this a production worth adding to your holiday events calendar. As the characters enact the play on stage, they forget about their troubles and remind themselves of the true spirit of the season, reminding the audience right along with them.
Blackout Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol is playing at the VSA North Fourth Theatre, 4904 4th Street NW, through December 24th. Performances are every Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays and Christmas Eve at 2:00pm. General admission is $15 and students and seniors are $12. Tickets can be reserved or purchased online at blackouttheatre.com or by calling 505-672-8648.