Blackout Theatre's fresh take on a holiday classic
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, December 8, 2011
Adaptations of the classics make me nervous, especially when it comes to Christmas stories. Maybe it’s because those modifications are often made superficially, in the form of a different lens meaninglessly placed over a well-known tale. The script remains intact; all that changes are the costumes. A postapocalyptic Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example—it’s a fun excuse for actors to dress like grunge kids and zombies, but does it make for good art or even a good time for the audience? That’s debatable. Like a remix of your favorite song, it might sound OK, but you often find yourself wishing you were just listening to the original.
When it comes to Blackout Theatre’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, however, my worries prove absolutely wrong. Blackout’s version is marvelous—whimsical yet dramatic with fine acting, haunting live music and some wonderfully creative puppetry. The kids will love it, but more importantly, you will probably love it, too.
The storyline of the Charles Dickens classic is well-worn territory. Ebenezer Scrooge is a cantankerous old man who shuns human connection in favor of wealth. He refuses his nephew’s invitation to Christmas, choosing instead to stay at home alone. When an eight-year employee, Bob Cratchit, asks for his very first Christmas Day off to spend with his wife and litter of children, Scrooge makes him beg and tells him he’ll have to make up for it by going into work at 4 a.m. the next day. He’s a miser, a curmudgeon, a terrible man with an even more terrible disposition.
Then the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, shows up in shackles, warning Scrooge that he’ll end up like him unless he changes his ways. Over the course of Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by three more spirits, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. As the audience is led through the loves and losses of Scrooge’s life, we watch him begin to melt.
Blackout’s take starts in a St. Louis train station, as passengers gather waiting for a 6:30 p.m. train to Chicago, where they plan on spending the holiday for various reasons. Lillian (Lauren Poole) has just gotten out of jail and is on her way to see her kids for the first time in five years. Nicholas (Shannon Flynn) is a lonely traveling toy maker. Beverly (Lila Martinez) and John (Abe Jallad) are struggling to make a living and looking for a new opportunity. Margaret (Heather Yeo) is a well-to-do mother spending her first Christmas without her son, who’s grown and moved out West to make a man of himself. Henry (Barney Lopez) and Rose (Katy Bowen) are performers on their way to a week of shows in the city.
Due to bad weather, the train is delayed. To pass the time, Henry and Rose start to put on their routine, A Christmas Carol. One by one, the other passengers join in and there’s a story within a story, with each passenger taking on a role or two (or three). Bits of costumes are pulled from Henry and Rose’s trunk. Nicholas transforms into Scrooge. John becomes Cratchit. Beverly, too shy to do much acting, plays the cello while Henry strums a ukulele. A giant rectangular screen spans the background and provides context for the scenes, usually filling in stationary details like windows and Christmas trees. But during Scrooge’s trips with his spirits, the stage lights are dimmed and a tumbling collage of 1800s imagery flurries across the backdrop, helping build suspense and momentum. (Note: Epileptics should stay away.)
Perhaps my favorite part of the show, though, are the puppets—or more specifically, the ways they’re used. One spirit’s face emerges from beneath a blanket laid on top of Scrooge. Another is crafted from foam cylinders, a mop top and some kind of elastic. It stretches and moves with the puppeteer. And then there’s the final spirit, which rises from a pile of torn sheets and strips of fabric. Somehow, it’s terrifying.
All of this, combined with stunning original music (composed by Monica Demarco—whose sister is managing editor at the Alibi, it should be disclosed) and a solid cast of actors, makes for an energetic and enthralling Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol
Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.
Sundays, 2 p.m.
Runs through Dec. 24
(Last performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 24)
VSA North Fourth Art Center, N4th Theater
4904 Fourth Street NW
Tickets: $12 to $15