You Can’t Win Them All
Review by Montague Gammon III
Not every work by a brilliant artist is a work of brilliance, nor is every work by a genius one of genius.
If any theatrical director in Hampton Roads achieves or comes truly close to genius, it's Virginia Stage Company Associate Director Patrick Mullins. His grasp of theatrical principles and of potent theatricality, his attention to the details of theatrical fundamentals, and his access to inspired artistic vision distinguished his ground-breaking, brilliant Romeo and Juliet, and have been regularly displayed and usually reaffirmed in his annually refreshed stagings of A Christmas Carol.
This year he has totally restaged the VSC dramatization of that Dickens classic, rather than making the small changes that have for several years marked the annual reappearance of miserly old Scrooge, the Cratchits and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. I’m sorry to say I’m not as bowled over as the lady who told VSC Artistic Director Chris Hanna that it was the company’s best Christmas Carol yet, much as I should like to be.
First, the opening night performance had the rough edged feel of a final dress rehearsal, rather than the subtle polish of a fully professional opening night.
More importantly, Mullins' efforts to get away from the company's previous approach to adapting the story from novel to script by using a story theatre style of spoken-narration-plus-acting turns out here to be either incomplete, or just outright unsuccessful.
Ditching the narration so that only action and dialogue carry the story is a worthwhile concept, but this version also discarded important information. For one example, the small but significant point that "Scrooge's name was good on 'Change for anything he chose to put his hand to," which is to say that he was a consummately trustworthy person albeit a skinflint, is omitted. So is a crucial point about what happens to the Cratchit family after Scrooge reforms - it’s all very well to show Scrooge’s new tenderness toward Tiny Tim, but what of it? If solicitousness and gestures of comfort cured lameness and forestalled childhood fatalities, the population of Victorian London would have mushroomed.
Nor are all of the several design changes improvements. The house fronts that slide on and off have a distinctly nautical appearance, their slant to left or right looking like the stern view of a captain's cabin on an old sailing ship - one would almost suspect they were left over from the old and unlamented VSC Treasure Island production.
The weird mask that Chris Van Cleave wears as the Marley's Ghost looks like something conceived by a would-be Phantom of the Opera designer after encountering ergot infested wheat.
Van Cleave, in his second year as Jacob Marley, is one of several familiar cast members returning, along with Andy Paterson (Year 4, Bob Cratchit), Peter Moore (Year 7, Scrooge) and Kevin R. Free (Fezziwig and others). Though none seemed at the top of his or her game opening night, they and the rest of the cast turned in competent performances.
What is most noteworthy about the work of less experienced actors in featured roles - such as locals Bryan Austin, Caitlin McWethy, Nancy Pope and Evette Marie White, and of child actors Jack Whitelaw, Colin Wilson and Morgan Wilson - is that every one holds her or his own among this group of highly trained professionals.
Mullins’ newest Christmas Carol has the basic ingredients and the right aim for success, but does need more than a little tuning to reach the standard that the VSC has set for itself.
This has not been the best of seasons for the Stage Company so far. It began with God of Carnage, a TV script with only one noteworth performance, followed by Red, at best a 20 minute one-act play stretched, through what might charitably be called reiterations, into 90 minutes. Still there’s good reason to believe that the best is yet to come.
Black Pearl Sings (Jan. 20-Feb. 5) is a Pulitzer and Tony winner that taps into the rich store of the heartfelt and stirring musical traditions of the African-American spiritual. Death of a Salesman (Feb. 24-Mar. 11) is simply one of the greats of American dramatic literature, and The Fantasticks (Mar. 30 - Apr. 15) holds records for popularity for good and sufficient reasons of its emotional appeal and musical delight. (If one can fault VSC for hewing to the familiar for the last two, economic pragmatism does suggest that now is not the best time to explore too many far-reaching aesthetic tree limbs.)
A Christmas Carol