Eva Knott 4:04 a.m., May 23
At the end of Fahrenheit 451, outcasts stand around a campfire and decide which piece of writing they'll commit to memory. They must choose because a reactionary government isn't just anti-intellectual, it's anti-intelligence, and is banning every book that inspires thought.
Ray Bradbury wrote the novel. Asked his choice, he replied "Dickens' A Christmas Carol; it's the perfect story."
It's also one of the most adapted for theater. I've seen versions ranging from traditional Victorian, to homeless, to a circus, to Douglas Jacobs' enchanting Pina Baush rendition for the Rep.
Cygent Theatre's world premiere, adapted by artistic director Sean Murray, has no smokey effects, no Bigfoot-sized Ghost of Christmas Future pointing a long, bony finger at Scrooge's grave, and no splashy choreography when the Fezziwig's party hearty. Instead, it's as if Toto pulls back the curtain and show how the Wizard pulls the levers.
It's Christmas in Manhattan, 1944. While the Battle of the Bulge rages in the Ardennes Mountains, Radio Station WCYG performs the Dickens story before a live studio audience. The cast, celebrities all, reads from scripts, either from behind music stands or floor mikes. Stage right, a pianist (Billy Thompson, who composed the music) accompanies the singers; stage left, Sam Hinds (the indefatigable Jason Connors) uses unlikely, at times bizarre, objects to make doors slam, feet stealth, and auras jingle.
The production has traded sights for sounds. One obvious benefit: emphasis is on the word and Dickens' three-dimensional descriptions (it's okay to close your eyes, says narrator Freddie Filmore - the mellifluous Jonathan Dunn-Rankin - and "just listen").
At the same time, the format's familiar. It's the same one Cygnet used for It's A Wonderful Life: same checkerboard-floor set and costumes, similar commercial breaks (though these push the humor and break the period-veneer with a reference to flurocarbons). For those who saw Wonderful Life the production has the been-there feel of a sequel. But the performances are high caliber.
Tom Stephenson is on a roll. His Bottom, in Intrepid Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was excellent. His Scrooge, in a three-piece gray suit, long gold watch chain dangling, and dour mien, looks like a financier so prosperous he might be benefiting from the war. Stephenson begins as a brooding actor who will play Scrooge. Somehow the performance transforms - de-curmudgeons - the actor as well.
Versatile David McBean does a town's-worth of characters and voices, each distinct and often quite funny. Maggie Carney, Melissa Fernandes, and Melinda Gilb form a trinity of ghosts, sing splendidly, and often do so in the background, as if they were blocks away. Absent way too long from local stages, Tim Irving makes Bob Cratchitt a touching soul and jovial Fezziwig a delight.
Image by Daren Scott