Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Scrooge Askew, For His Own Good

By Ed Malin

Blessed Unrest, that experimental theater company known for choreography and classics, is now staging A Christmas Carol.  The production runs through December 31st at the New Ohio.  Adapted by Matt Opatrny from the novel by Charles Dickens, this poignant show is both familiar and, thanks to Jessica Burr’s direction and choreography, a step beyond.  On a mostly bare stage, with things such as doors carried on and off by the cast between scenes, we see Ebenezer Scrooge have something like a “4-D” experience involving spirits, noise, juggling, perspective shift, stilts, and much, much more.
In Victorian London, the famous Scrooge (J. Stephen Brantley) is a tall, always-scowling, workaholic businessman.  For reasons that will become clear later, he does not have the Christmas spirit. He laments that he will be giving his employee, Bob Cratchit (Nathan Richard Wagner) one paid holiday this year.  He tells the local bleeding heart charity folks (Claire Fort, Tatyana Kot) that the prisons and poorhouses should be sufficient to help the underprivileged.  His nephew, Fred (Becca Schneider), makes the usual, hotly resisted yearly invitation for Scrooge to join them on Christmas.  All of this comes from the original tale.  However, Blessed Unrest work their magic to show us how Scrooge came to be the kind of person who runs away from his pain by working, sleeping, and over again.  When Scrooge goes home, the ensemble rotate a door and have him trudge up multiple flights of creaky stairs, all on the flat stage.  Once in bed, the ten-foot tall apparition of his deceased partner, Marley (Joshua Wynter) shares a happy moment with Scrooge—finally, someone who understands what it means to work all the time—before telling him to expect visits from the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. These flights of fancy reveal great moments of happiness with late friends and lovers and even Scrooge's beloved sister, which, when lost, drive Scrooge to live only to work.  The best thing Scrooge can do is to help Cratchit’s son, Tim (Becca Schneider) to live long enough to have happy memories of his own.
While long passages of the original tale abound, the deft ensemble does an outstanding job of using contemporary speech to get the audience to connect to isolated Ebenezer.  Holiday schmaltz-pop is played on the ukulele.  At one point, the characters ask each other what kind of insect a “humbug” is. And then there’s the poultry delivery person (Nathan Richard Wagner), a Cockney’s Cockney, whom, sadly, no one can understand.  Dining scenes are absolutely brilliant.  The audience’s bird’s-eye view is achieved by having the actors recline on stage around a vertically-oriented table, drinking out of cups with magnetic bottoms.   Constant stage activity, cheerful chucking of apples, much joyful dancing and the occasional “Happy Hanukkah” greeting continually make this production a joy to watch.