December 13, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Once again that little gem of a theatre, the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn has proven the ideal setting for Charles Dickens‘ beloved A Christmas Carol. Promising to become a yearly event, with the 4th production already scheduled for 2009, the delightful play tells us the same story, but in a pattern ever new.
They just cling while a voice above them booms, “Are there no prisons? Are there no work-houses?”
The adaptation is still that of Eric Hill. And Hill brings us that curmudgeon Scrooge, so believable down to his last whisker, but Hill (who this year co-directs with E. Gray Simons III) is the only character who repeats his role from previous productions. And Hill, creative actor that he is, each year brings new shadings to the role that he inhabits with such authority and audience delight.
Carl Sprague’s magnificent grey London sets are the same, with a difference, since each performance over the years brings in changing patterns of the actors performing within them. In this 3rd year production the narrative role of Dickens himself seems to move more within the play as Ralph Petillo in the role weaves himself into the action, in a fine performance.
There are 40 roles in this big cast play. They are played by 26 actors, obviously with many doublings. One of the great delights is how all of them, so fittingly costumed by Jessica Risser-Milne in Victoriana garb (down to their very boots) or fantastic “Scrooge nightmare characters” are exactly on the mark.
And as every year, one of the delights is “the children” coming from schools all over Berkshire county, from the 4th grade to high school students, some the latter who appear convincingly in adult roles. It is impossible to list them all, but the especially designed program does so along with a marvelous group (numbered) photo in which all appear. Tiny Tim is #1 (Cameron Castonguay), who in the play handles his crutch bravely and delivers the last words to the audience as he, and Dickens, urge “God bless us, everyone.”
For me, the most moving moment in the play is always the same. Two ragged children cling helplessly to the Ghost of Christmas present. They are nameless, yet their plight is not. They are “ignorance” and “want” (played here by Marco Crescentini and Theresa Russell). They do not speak. They just cling while a voice above them booms, “Are there no prisons? Are there no work-houses?”
This scene never fails to move me to tears (and I always know it’s coming and steel myself for it). This year with our world in economic free-fall, I found the moment exceptionally moving.
So much of this play comes in the small moments, of which the intimacy of the theatre lets one become part. The way poor put-upon Bob Crachit (Andrew Belcher) winds his chilled legs about the legs of his stool. The way Abigail Ziaja slipped the bit of oh-so-right cockney into Mrs. Crachit’s speech. The wonderful character groupings as Scrooge transported to Christmas Future sees with what glee his worldly goods are disposed of by the needy. The graceful movement of the first ghost (Brandy Caldwell) and the hearty gusto of the second.
And there is lovely music, solos by children, music to which spirits move or ghosts appear. It is all interwoven in a way one scarcely has time to note. For instance, as one child begins a solo “Silent Night” the staging has been gradually encircled by tiny groups of mothers, each with child or children, who join in. And the words “Mother and Child” in the song are magnified.
As one can see, there is so much to delight in this Christmas Carol that a brief review can only partially contain it, so I urge you go. Take the children. It is a grand way to spend a couple of hours during the holidays.
Playing in the Unicorn Theatre Dec. 11-14, Dec. 17-22, and Dec. 26-30 at 7pm.
There will be 2pm matinee performances on Dec. 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, and 28.
A 10am matinee will be held on Dec. 15, 18, and 22. There will be no performances on Dec. 24 and 25.
Children $20, adults $36-$39.