The story of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a timeless one. It tells the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, an irritable, selfish old man who sees no value in the holiday or the spirit of giving it elicits, and who is visited by three ghosts on the nights leading up to Christmas. Through a series of glimpses into his own history and the lives of those around him, the spirits teach Scrooge the error of his ways and help him embark upon his life with a renewed sense of selflessness come Christmas Day.
The meaningful messages in this classic tale are still as relevant today as ever before, making “A Christmas Carol” a traditional holiday staple for theater companies across the country to perform come December. Yet the telling of this story at Central Square Theater, produced by Underground Railway Theater and The Nora Theatre Company, is anything but traditional. Through puppetry, music, movement, and an incredible use of an ensemble cast, this production is able to shape and mold this classic tale into something fresh and utterly unique, while never once compromising the powerful morals within it.
Brilliantly adapted and directed by Debra Wise, this production establishes very quickly that it will not follow the norms of conventional theater. Produced in the round and placing the audience right in the middle of the action, the production does a fantastic job of blurring the boundaries between story and reality usually defined by a proscenium stage. This, coupled with a pre-show segment in which the ensemble interacts with the audience, sets a very specific tone for the piece; right from the start it is clear to audiences that they are about to see a piece of theater that is aware that it is a piece of theater, and that they should be ready to go along for the ride.
It is a risky choice to take a show that people know and love and transform it into something entirely new, but Wise’s intricate vision for this production is so well developed audiences barely have time to miss the classic telling as they’re swept into this creative and artistic variation.
At the heart of this adaptation is Wise’s innovative approach to storytelling as something that extends far beyond words and action on stage. In scenic designer David Fichter’s beautiful Victorian-era London cityscape, for instance, there are modern sayings and Banksy-inspired cartoons integrated into the multi-dimensional piece, accenting the timelessness of the story being told. Perhaps most significantly, this deviation from the norm is highlighted by Wise’s use of ensemble in the production. Rather than just portraying characters, the cast of this show takes on the intimate role of the storytellers themselves, facilitating aspects of the play far beyond just performance.
Throughout the piece, ensemble members can be seen just off stage or even in the midst of the action, reflecting light off the walls with mirrors to signify a ghostly presence, or layering in hand-made sound effects into the scenes, whether through music or the simple ringing of a bell—a silly but standout gag where Scrooge’s clerk physically rings a bell to signify a doorbell every time someone enters or exits the office. The entire character of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come is produced through light and sound, with different cast members playing eerie noises on string instruments from different sides of the space, creating an all-encompassing, haunting effect.
Set pieces and props are moved and manipulated, for the most part, by the actors themselves, as well, creating many of the most visually stunning moments in the production. One particularly poignant example of this is produced during Scrooge’s journey through his past when the actors maneuver the set pieces into a stunning physical representation of Scrooge’s memory piecing itself together. As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past stand center, members of the ensemble enter pushing dollhouse-sized, fully lit structures of house and buildings on baby carriages and rustic wheelbarrows. Clearly meant to represent the village in which Scrooge grew up, these structures circle the two as Scrooge starts to recall exactly where in his past they are visiting, and the structures finally come to rest at their correct locations. It is moments like this that, when executed by Wise so thoughtfully, add an invigorating sense of magic and wonder to an already powerful story.
What’s more, this cast—which consists of not only seasoned adult actors but a handful of talented children, as well—does a fabulous job of creating a compelling and energetic dynamic on stage. Through their commitment to character and the story at hand, these actors are able to help audiences embrace the intimacy of the production by making the world of the show one which you can’t help but want to be a part of. And where so often it feels invasive when actors break the fourth wall, in this production what little fourth wall there is to be broken is done so with vigor and excitement, so that by the time the opportunity arises for audiences to get on stage and dance with the characters, patrons young and old are practically leaping from their seats to join in the fun. It is a because of the comfort and ease through which these actors tackle the telling of this story that audiences are able to enjoy this piece of theater for what it is, and leave having experienced Scrooge’s tale in an entirely new way.
Apart from their work as a full ensemble, Wise did a wonderful job of incorporating the personal skills of the performers into the show and using them to add dimension to the world in which this story unfolds.
Mesma Belsaré (The Ghost of Christmas Past), for example, has trained in dance in the classical medium in India and parlays that training into her portrayal of this role. She creates a character that communicates through not only speech but the movement that appears both very controlled and very fluid at the same time, a depiction of this role I had never seen before and yet one that rang true for this production and its use of non-typical storytelling devices.
The music incorporated in this production is another aspect that flourishes due to the talent in the ensemble. Cast members Eliza Rose Fichter and Caitlin Gjerdrum stand out specifically for their musicality, the former playing the fiddle and the latter singing in spots throughout the performance. The production’s Tiny Tim, played by an adorable Ben Choi-Harris, also uses his sweet singing voice to pull at audiences’ heartstrings, most significantly in the moment when Scrooge sees into the future and realizes that Tiny Tim has passed away due to lack of caring from people like himself. In this moment, Tiny Tim is standing a level above his family, illuminated in soft light and singing gently as the weight of the loss of this character sinks in. It is a powerful moment, made even more so by the Choi-Harris’ light vocals and sweet demeanor.
Other prominent acting moments in this production were brought forth by ensemble members Ramona Lisa Alexander (Marley et al.), Jesse Garlick (Bob Cratchit et al.), David Keohane (Nephew et al.), and Vincent Ernest Siders (Ghost of Christmas Present et al.),who round out some of the more character-driven roles in the show. Siders’ portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Present strikes the perfect balance between lighthearted and all-knowing, while Alexander’s take on Marley’s Ghost is far more chilling than personable. Additionally, Garlick and Keohane are both able to showcase their versatility as actors in this production, switching seamlessly between performing a hysterical, coordinated dance together in one scene, to a heartfelt portrayal of family values in the next.
At the center of all these fabulous standout roles is Ken Cheeseman, who plays a unique and oddly charming version of Ebenezer Scrooge. In his hands, this iconic role becomes flushed out as a real person, with jaded and stubborn tendencies but also a huge capacity to learn and grow. The moments of humor he is able to incorporate into the character that has audiences invested in his journey from the moment he steps on stage, and really contribute to the overall immersive and welcoming tone of the production.
This production of “A Christmas Carol” at Central Square Theater provides a refreshing reminder of what can be done with a group of artists and a story to tell, and it is not one you are going to want to miss this holiday season.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 31st at Central Square Theater. For tickets visit www.centralsquaretheater.org or contact the Box Office at (617) 576-9278, Extension 1. Central Square Theater is located at 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, MA.