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Blessed Unrest's A Christmas Carol

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

The Cast. Six actors play thirty-seven characters.
Photo by Alan Roche.
As we transition from Thanksgiving and Black Friday to the heady days of Yuletide, what guilty pleasure do you look forward to? Do you indulge in the 24-hour televised marathon of A Christmas Story? Or seek out your zillionth production of The Nutcracker? Or perhaps plan a trip into the city to admire the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center?

I will, without shame, confess that I have glutted on all of these over the years. But none can compare with the one holiday tradition that I would be bereft without, the time I get to spend with Charles Dickens's immortal A Christmas Carol. However cynical, cranky, or just plain tired I may be feeling, this beloved tale of redemption never fails to leave me teary-eyed and hopeful.

This theater season has been particularly generous to Dickens aficionados, with at least four different versions of A Christmas Carol being offered up around town. Opening tonight at the Interart Theatre is one of these, a smartly crafted and innovative production by Blessed Unrest, which has chosen to focus on the author's social justice stance along with a few modern twists touching on the likes of the Affordable Care Act and the heartlessness of big business.

In adapting the work, Blessed Unrest's managing director Matt Opatrny has taken on—and mostly succeeded at—the challenge of retaining Dickens's language, tone, and style while inserting new dialog that provides Ebenezer Scrooge with a strong back story and a degree of plausible and theatrically-sound psychological verisimilitude.

In doing so, Opatrny has given the character a surprising amount of depth to help us better understand how Scrooge has become the well-known "Bah! Humbug!" curmudgeon of the story. Very few of these emendations feel forced or jarringly anachronistic, and they lend themselves well to A Christmas Carol as a theatrical performance, a true complement to the wonderful read-aloud narrative that Dickens composed.

It is clear that Opatrny has a strong partnership with the company's artistic director Jessica Burr, who has both directed and choreographed the production with a cinematic eye. She has the cast do some wonderfully creative things with Neal Wilkinson's set design, consisting of a few doors and a stage filled with suitcases and trunks, a visual representation of the "baggage" that Scrooge has carried with him since boyhood.

There is so much to admire about this production, from the staging, to the use of an array of music ranging from the sublime (Handel) to the absurd (Eartha Kitt, Elvis, and Lady Gaga), to the performances by a multiethnic cast of very talented actors, most of whom take on multiple roles.

In the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge, Damen Scranton shows us a deeply conflicted man who has shaped a life based on a search for predictability and control, and who has sacrificed much to achieve it. Even in the end, he does not turn into a wildly exuberant embracer of life, but more realistically into someone who understands he is on the start of a journey in which he still has much to learn in terms of acting on the lessons the spirits have taught him. Among the rest of the cast, the standout is the wild-bearded Nathan Richard Wagner, who is equally at home (and equally as convincing) whether he is playing Bob Cratchit or Mrs. Fezziwig, or even a table leg.

Running at an intermissionless 95 minutes, Blessed Unrest's A Christmas Carol is a wonderful way to launch the holiday season, and perhaps a reminder for all of us to be a bit more charitable in our dealings with one another.

Blessed Unrest's A Christmas Carol
Through December 22
Rumming time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Interart Theatre, 500 West 52nd Street, just west of 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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