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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

It's Christmas Time In New Jersey
Part 2: It's Christmas by Dickens:
A Christmas Carol / The Ghost's Bargain

Also see Bob's reviews of The Santaland Diaries, My Three Angels and Doubt

As usual, there are several versions of A Christmas Carol available to Garden State audiences. Under scrutiny here is a new British adaptation, as well as the premiere a newly commissioned adaptation of a little known Dickens novella.


A Brisk and Bracing Christmas Carol at Shakespeare Theatre

A Christmas Carol
Sherman Howard and
Tina Stafford

As the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey concludes a spectacularly successful season, it is worthwhile to again note that Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte has deployed her actors (and directors) over time so as to establish a true repertory theatre of rare quality. Not so strangely, the result is that STNJ's home grown production of British playwright Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol feels as if it has arrived fresh on the shores of New Jersey from across the Atlantic. Those who have been privileged to see classic ensemble British productions of works such as Nicholas Nickleby will get my drift immediately.

It is not that we have an epic sized production at hand. This is a brisk, uncluttered Christmas Carol, faithful to the dark visions of the original. It is unadorned of the English pantomime flourishes which entertain us and the young 'uns with spectacular scenic effects, music and dance. These pleasing accoutrements by their very nature soften and distort the original novel. What we do have is a fluid, quick-paced and handsome production in which nine actors smoothly and seemingly effortlessly re-create a harsh 19th century London filled with a gallery of the nearly 50 characters whom they play. It should be noted that these actors also play the wind and the snow (how clever that is) and the sounds of the city, including clocks, watches and Christmas bells. This all lends a most pleasing story theatre quality to the proceedings.

As Ebenezer Scrooge, Sherman Howard anchors the adaptation masterfully by not doing a star turn. The only cast member who does not play multiple roles, Howard performs hand in glove with the ensemble, allowing events to establish the centrality of his Scrooge. As his unhappiness and anger turn into fear and dread, Howard never allows his Scrooge to exceed human dimensions. It is notable that the very talented, strongly distinctive Ames Adamson most effectively mutes his distinctiveness in a series of roles which include the Ghost of Christmas Past, Peter Cratchit and an assortment of gentlemen.

Lending verisimilitude to their multiple roles and providing a sense of real relationships among their characters are the most appealing Tina Stafford, Erin Partin and Betsy Jilka as the female Fezziwigs and Cratchits, among other roles. David MacDonald (Marley's Ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Present), Greg Jackson (Bob Cratchit and Mr. Fezziwig), Seamus Mulcahy (Tiny Tim and Young Scrooge) and Steve Wilson (Scrooge's nephew, Fred and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) complete the finely tuned ensemble.

Bonnie J. Monte sharply directs the complex production with pace and clarity, eliciting a most admirable ensemble performance from her entire cast. Monte is well abetted by the handsome and smoothly flexible scenery of James Wolk, the rich and enveloping sound design of Rich Dionne and the evocative period costumes of Karen Ledger.

Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol emphasizes brisk, straightforward and clear storytelling. It avoids sentimentality and is designed to appeal to the head rather than the heart. Oh, about that harsh and often dismal 19th century London that I mentioned, let me not forget that this is an inspiring Christmas story, and the hard times are joyously ameliorated by love, compassion, faith and the bonds of family. Of course, you knew that.

A Christmas Carol continues performances (Tues. 7:30 p.m. / Wed. – Sat. 8 p.m. / Sun. 7 p.m. / Mats. Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.; Added Mats: 12/27 & 12/31 – 2 p.m. / No Perf. 12/25) through the matinee of December 31, 2007 at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org

A Christmas Carol adapted by Neil Bartlett from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast
Ghost of Christmas Past, et al……………….Ames Adamsom
Ebenezer Scrooge……………………….Sherman Howard
Bob Cratchit, Fezziwig, et al………………….Greg Jackson
Martha Cratchit, et al……………………………..Betsy Jilka
Jacob Marley, et al…............David Andrew Macdonald
Tiny Tim, et al………………...................Seamus Mulcahy
Belle Fezziwig, et al………………………..........Erin Partin
Mrs. Cratchit, Mrs. Fezziwig, et al………….Tina Stafford
Fred, Ghost of Christmas to Come, et al…….Steve Wilson


The Ghost's Bargain: Lesser Known Dickens' Christmas Tale

Ghost's Bargain
William Parry, Anne O'Sullivan
The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, a Fancy For Christmas-Time, a Dickens novella concerning a life-changing pre-Christmas nighttime visit to a haunted professor by an evil ghost, both sounds and reads like a precursor to the author's evergreen classic, A Christmas Carol. However, as the latter was first published in 1843, five years earlier than the less well known novella, it seems likely that it was Dickens' attempt to recapture the success of the earlier work.

In any event, the novella is an intriguing variation with a great deal of interest in its own right, and the decision of the enterprising Two River Theatre Theater Company to commission emerging playwright-director Linda Eason to write a stage adaptation is one more reason for the excitement that Two River is generating. The adaptation, with the shortened titled The Ghost's Bargain is now receiving a praiseworthy premiere production at Two Rivers' intimate, flexible second space in its impressive still new Red Bank facility.

While she hews closely to the central thesis of the Dickens' novella, adaptor Laura Eason has made changes in the story in an attempt to make it a more stage-worthy family Christmas entertainment. As in most such efforts, there are some things lost and some things gained. Eason has carried over from the Dickens novella a lack of clarity in certain narrative aspects of the story. While overall, the result is quite pleasant, Eason's adaptation would very likely benefit from further development.

It is just before Christmas. Redlaw, the kindly and compassionate headmaster of a private college, is haunted by memories of his impoverished and loveless childhood and the loss of his sister (the only person who loved and nurtured him in his childhood) and her son. He is also racked with guilt for having introduced his sister to the man who married her, betrayed her, abused her and then separated her and her son from him. Redlaw wishes to be freed of these memories which torture him. That night, he receives a visitation from the ghost of the deceased sainted school founder-headmaster whose motto was "keep my memory (referring to his personal memory bank) green." In view of their diametrically opposed views on the subject, the ghost grants forgetfulness to Redlaw along with the ability to pass this condition on to others.

However, the "gift" of forgetfulness of one's past sufferings along with the kindness (however sparse it may have been) which one has known robs the recipient of the ability to feel empathy for the feelings of others.

The lives of those around Redlaw are blighted by his "gift." This includes his butler, William Swidger; his wife, the saintly and compassionate Milly, whose kindness and empathy has endeared her to the college's students; and Swidger's beloved 87-year-old father. It also includes Mr. and Mrs. Tetterby and their seven children, an extremely poor, but happy and content family. Redlaw meets them when he comes to their home to aid their boarder, the college's student Edmund Denham, who harbors a troubling secret.

In the Dickens novella, the Ghost whose "gift" is bestowed upon Redlaw is the dark and evil side of Redlaw himself. In fact, at the end it is implied that rather than a ghost, this figure may have been a figment of his fevered and troubled imagination. This removes the sense of fear and suspense in which the Ghost should be shrouded and causes us to puzzle over the implausibility of such a kindly ghost inflicting so much unhappiness in order to prove his point. And Redlaw immediately realizes that he has lost his humanity upon receiving the gift, and, thus, it makes no sense when he passes the gift on in order to help others. In his novella, Dickens fails to provide a clear narrative explanation of the past events which haunt him. Eason's dramaturgy would benefit from filling in these blanks. This gives rise to distracting questions about Redlaw's situation which beg for answers. The adaptation foreshortens some plot elements and eliminates some characters. The restoration of the ones relating directly to Redlaw and his family would add needed weight and complexity to the adaptation.

The unhoned performances of local youngsters playing the Titterby children (including the largely undecipherable dialogue of the featured one) aside, the Two River production is exemplary. The playing area occupies the center area of the theatre across its full length, and is lined on each side with a tiered bank (four rows deep on one side, three on the other). At either end is a gaggle of substantial, colorful and evocative scenic elements which are moved about to provide effective scenery for the principal locations (the college hall quarters of Redlaw on one end and the Titterby rooms behind their newspaper shop on the other), and any number of others. There is some stirring semi-classical sounding music by The Broken Chord Collective which nicely sets the proper mood for this excursion into the world of Charles Dickens. Director Melissa Kievman has used the playing area adroitly, maintained a lively, upbeat pace and kept the running time to 70 minutes, a manageable length for a holiday family entertainment aimed at all ages.

Five adult actors and one child play all of the principal roles with the aid of the cleverly designed costumes of Olivera Gajic. Gregor Paslawsky plays Redlaw with conviction and light dramatic flair. Young Sabrina Park (who is alternating with Cristina Medlin) projects an appropriate ferule quality as Boy, a child of the streets who is unaffected by the "gift" of memory loss as he has never known any kindness in his life.

Each of the others perform multiple roles. Particularly delightful are Richard Crawford and Anne O'Sullivan who portray both married couples, William and Emily Swidger, and Adolphus and Mrs. Tetterby. The contrast between O'Sullivan's warmly sincere Emily and her bumptiously comic Mrs. Tetterby (and her on-stage costume change which involves the removal of a fat suit) is a particular pleasure.

William Parry brings a charming fussiness to his portrayal of Adolphus' father, Philip, and is straightforward in the role of the Ghost. Hopefully, this now puzzling role will be re-examined by adaptor Eason. Simon Kendall is earnest and likeable as Edward Denham, his principal role.

Work remains to be done for this adaptation to reach its full potential. For now, the Two River Theater Company is providing area families with an intelligent, lovingly staged adaptation of another Dickens Christmas story with this production of The Ghost's Bargain.

The Ghost's Bargain continues performances (Tues. / Wed. Sold Out except 12/26 at 3 p.m. / Thurs. – Sun. 7 p.m. / Fri. -12/28 only / Sat. 1 p.m. / Sun. 3 p.m.) through December 30, 2007 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, New Jersey 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.

The Ghost's Bargain adapted by Laura Eason from a novella by Charles Dickens, directed by Melissa Kievman

Cast
William Swidger/Adolphus Tetterby………..Richard Crawford
Edmund Denham………………………………….Simon Kendall
Milly Swidger/ Mrs. Tetterby………………….Annie O'Sullivan
Boy………………………….Cristina Medlin/ Sabrina Park
Philip Swidger/ The Ghost………………………...William Parry
Redlaw……………………………………....Gregor Paslawsky
The Tetterby Children…………… Gillian Andresen, Morgan Joy Belforti,
Suzie Eidmann-Hicks, Charley Johnson
Joe Persico, Emily Woods


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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