Kickin’ the Dickens outta Christmas?

From time to time I will write a critique of a show I see especially if it incites theoretical analysis.  It is not a review.  I am not a reviewer.  I am, however, very much a critic.

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As a member of the theatre community, we are surrounded by repetition.  Rehearsals, performances, the scripts themselves become repetitive the older I get.  As I have stated before, I am a lover of the philosophies of Peter Brook.  Repetition, though certainly not all bad, can lead to Deadly Theatre especially when it takes the form of productions that are trying to repeat other productions’ successes.  We often see this in the numerous Broadway tours that come through every major metropolitan area in the country which attempt to create the same show that ran on Broadway but fail miserably.  My first experience with this was a tour of Cats I saw in Lansing, MI.  As a kid from a town that didn’t even have a high school theatre program of any kind for much of my tenure, I thought it was “pretty cool.”  However, soon after, I saw the show in London in the theatre that was built for the show, and the show completely surrounded me and engulfed me.  It was my first perfect theatrical experience, and that night, a show many people write-off as (at best) “children’s theatre” became the one of the most fully engrossing theatrical experiences I have ever had and markedly different from my experience with that tour I saw in Lansing. Unfortunately, these frequently watered-down pieces of Deadly Theatre are what the majority of America is able to see.

That brings me to a dilemma: A Christmas Carol Dilemma 

I understand that people will buy tickets solely based on the title of the show and A Christmas Carol is one of those titles, but I am part of the group of people on this planet who never need to see another version of A Christmas Carol as long as I live.  Let’s just say that the frequency of its repetition has become monotonous.  It’s probably seeded in the George C. Scott movie that they forced us to watch in school as a child.  In the opening credits a carriage carrying a coffin passed on the street and terrified me, so I was pretty much done.  Every since then, admittedly, I have been biased.  But, please, PLEASE stop adapting A Christmas Carol.  Please stop spinning it, modernizing it, making it relevant.  If you are trying it, it has been done.  The show has in so many ways come to define Deadly Theatre, and that is a hard term to define.

Which is why Phillip J. Berns is one of the bravest souls on the planet.  He did everything in his power to try to make me hate what I was watching when I attended his version of A Christmas Carol at the new space at Milepost 5.  He started by doing A Christmas Carol (Bah!), he did it as a one-man show (uhhhh… “Picard” says no), he partially memorized his lines (I’ll get there), he shined a bright, naked lightbulb in my eyes for the whole show (except for 2 absolutely rich moments of darkness and song at the top of each act), and… he drank cheap beer (with all of the amazing beer available, he drinks Hamm’s).  Unfortunately in all my Bah humbuggery, I couldn’t help but absolutely fall in love with this young man and his all too familiar tale (mind you, he is a young man I thought I knew very well.  We’ve shared the stage numerous times.)

!SHOUT OUT! for the new space run by Post5 Theatre at Milepost 5 

When a performer begins their piece by letting us know it is part of the very fabric of his life, I’m bound to be intrigued.

THIS. This show. Moreover this format, is all we want of A Christmas Carol.  I’ve seen all of the smoke ‘n mirrors.  I’ve seen the brilliant actors.  What I really want is exactly what a got, a phenomenal story told by a phenomenal story-teller.  Berns takes it back to the source.  He basically reads the Dicken’s story word for word (ala “Picard”).  Again, this could fall really flat… I mean Elevator-Repair-Service-The-Great-Gatsby FLAT!!!  (*Gasp* Oh no, he did not!), but Berns is so perfectly cast as… well… every character that the very core of the story resonated more clearly this time than in any other production I have ever seen.  Maybe it was because of what he was trying to tell us about in his opening statement about the piece; this show is a part of him, and consequently he inhabits every corner and ever curve very comfortably.

It’s not without its faults, but everything is fixable.  First of all, he should turn off the bright light… or figure out how to use it.  Also, he could develop the physical character to the level that the vocal character has been developed.  And finally, he needs to memorize the lines.  I understand it’s billed as a reading so I should accept it for what it is, but in his opening statement, Berns explained that this is a process that he began last year and he hopes to continue, so my hope is that this is where he is in the memorization process and it’s billing as a reading is more out of necessity.  The only real problem is that when he is memorized he is phenomenal, but those little moments where he needs to go back to his script are then all the more jarring.  The true feat in this piece as an individual work of art separate from simply reading someone else’s work is in having memorized it all.  That, alone, verges on genius.  I’d even be ok with understanding that he at times is “riffing” on the original.  After all, he is a highly gifted storyteller and I’m pretty certain we can trust him.

However, he should never lose the intimacy, that sense of gathering around the fire to hear grandpa tell the same story we hear every year; never lose the honesty of the Rough Theatre  and empty spaces to which it owes its origins; never lose the sense of nostalgia which is the very reason he references for needing to do the show in the first place.  And the live music… yes, never lose the live music and, at-times, Foley-like soundscapes.

This brave young man actually managed to penetrate this old, cold heart by taking me back to what is essential about this ritual we practice at this time of year every year in the theatre, the ritual we call A Christmas Carol.

It all just sounds so familiar…

Bah. Oh, well.  Happy Holidays.

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