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Chicago by John Olson

Provision Theater Company’s New Take on A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol
Bradley Armacost as Scrooge, and Damian Arnold as Bob Cratchit
Can there be another story in the English language that has been adapted so many different times in so many different ways? Economics must play a large part ... Dickens himself was the first artist to earn some badly needed money from this work, and today hundreds of theater companies rely on it to generate a good share of their operating income. Without the expense of a royalty to the writer, as the work has long been in the public domain, it’s an even more profitable proposition. Provision Theater Company, an Equity-affiliated company is offering one of four professional productions of this classic in the Chicago area this season. Happily (merrily?), they seem driven more by artistic than financial considerations and have come up with an amazingly honest and fresh take on Scrooge’s tale.

For their Christmas Carol, adapters Tim Gregory and David Bell have returned to the spirit of Dickens the social crusader. In fact, their adaptation is more dickensian than was Dickens’ novella. They’ve embellished the piece with additional scenes of their own creation that fully establish the poverty and desperation of so many in 19th Century London, establishing that Scrooge was more than miserly, but insensitive and inhumane as well. After a prologue that re-enacts Marley’s funeral with mourners singing the Dies Irae, there is an original scene in which Scrooge’s business practices are demonstrated. First, he raises his already usurious interest rate on a loan offered to a group of men, and next he threatens an expectant mother and her husband with legal action and the threat of prison unless they make their scheduled payment on Christmas Day. Later in the first act, when Scrooge re-visits his past along with the first spirit, Gregory and Bell add some back-story to show how he lost his humanity. We see Jacob Marley recruit the young and promising Scrooge away from his kind and jovial employer Mr. Fezziwig. A year later, Scrooge helps Marley repossess Fezziwig’s business – throwing Mr. And Mrs. Fezziwig and Scrooge’s schoolboy chum Dick Wilkins out on the street. These actions are shown to lead to the cancellation of his engagement to Belle, which is described in Dickens though not with this specific subtext.

When the Ghost of Christmas Present has Scrooge view Cratchit’s family and reveals that Tiny Tim will die unless the course of the future is altered, the original Dickens dialogue is more powerful than ever as a result of the additions by Gregory and Bell. The spirit admonishes Scrooge to hold his remarks about ridding society of excess population “unless you know what and where the excess population is.” The spirit then shows him a ghostly boy and girl, called Ignorance and Want. Dickens writes, “Beware of them both ... but most of all this boy (Ignorance), for on his brow I see written that which is Doom unless the writing be erased.” If I’ve seen this performed in previous productions, I can’t remember it and it couldn’t have had the power it has here.

Gregory and Bell may go too far for some audience members in the “Christmas Future” scene when they show a prostitute leaving her baby with a co-worker while she goes off with a customer. The adaptation, while powerful, could benefit from additional tweaking. While far from humorless, the adaptation could use a bit more comic relief without compromising its punch. The expansion of the “Christmas Past” scenes, especially the repossession of Fezziwig’s business, may dent the dramatic arc – there’s maybe a little too much of the ugly and sad stuff too early and it gets the cast to an emotional peak a bit too soon.

Regardless, this is a powerful and entertaining production. Gregory, who directed, has assembled a sterling cast of 21 ranging from the Equity player Bradley Armacost as Scrooge to a highly talented group of off-Loop veterans and a talented, unmannered corps of kids. Armacost has created a highly believable Scrooge by refusing to exaggerate his crotchety character and displaying sincere regret of his past, fear for his future and relief at his reprieve. Damian Arnold and Susie Griffith are an unusually touching Mr. And Mrs. Cratchit. They gain our sympathy as their characters try to be strong. Their sense of loss in the vision of the future in which Tiny Tim has died is shown through quiet underplaying of the moment that never takes the easy route.

All in the cast, except for those playing Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, take multiple parts and participate in an ensemble that represents both the seedier and the seemlier Londoners of the story. Bursting on and off the Chopin Theater’s small playing area, they recreate the energy of the city, act their featured parts with skill and sing a variety of English Christmas carols arranged by Vaughn Fayle and Rob Bowman, under Fayle’s musical direction. The mood is well set by the simple but effective set design of Robert Moore, the period costumes of Ora Jewell-Busche and the atmospheric sound design by Scotty Iseri. Jason Brown’s lighting design sets an eerie mood within the low-tech capabilities of the space.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 23rd at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago. Performances are Wednesdays at 11 a.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Additional performances on Saturdays December 11 and 18 at 4 p.m., on Tuesday and Wednesday December 21-22 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.00 for adults, $18.00 for children 12 and under, and groups of ten or more are $20.00. Tickets available by phone at 773.506.4429 or online at www.provisiontheater.org.


Photo: John Bridges

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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