Charles Dickens was a rock star. On his reading tours in both England and America, fans crowded the venues to hear him read excerpts from his novels, cheered his speeches about social issues.
Charles Dickens was a clown. Yes, the author of The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield and the rest was also the most popular English language novelist of the 19th century, but he was also known to his friends as a total cutup who loved assuming comic personae and telling uproarious stories, most of which he made up himself.
Charles Dickens was also, therefore, an actor. He liked playing roles so much that he acted in his friends’ plays and even wrote his novels by acting out the various characters in his studio to capture their voices.
Such an inherently theatrical backstory proved irresistible to Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer, an inveterate historical researcher who in 2010 used Dickens’s life story (drawn from his diary and remembrances by family and contemporaries) to create his original comic take on the Victorian English author’s heartwarming Christmas classic. The revived Charles Dickens Writes “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 23 at The Vault theatre. (The information above comes from the company’s characteristically comprehensive study guide to the play)
Palmer’s adaptation — really an old story within a new play — has the added advantage of doubling the show’s appeal. It presents enough of Dickens’s original 1843 Scrooge story to entertain kids and others who are experiencing the holiday classic for the first time in a long time, or ever, while giving those who know the original by heart get an entirely new story around it. But although the combination makes for a generally entertaining holiday show, that framing narrative resembles one of those massive, Dickens-era Victorian picture frames, so ornate that they sometimes distract from the picture they surround. Even so, the show has so much going for it that it makes an easy holiday recommendation.
The play opens dramatically, appropriate to Dickens’s rock star status, with a surge of clapping in the dark. The lights rise to reveal a crowd applauding one of Dickens’s wildly entertaining speeches. Then we see him in his study, talking to actors (that is, the actor-characters) about a new story he’s conceiving. The “actors” are meant to evoke Dickens’s own intentionally split personality as he creates and voices characters from A Christmas Carol, and also supposedly represent different parts of his complex personality, though it was hard to discern much distinction among them.
Gradually, as in Vanya on 42nd Street and others, the “actors” morph into their characters, a transformation handled gracefully here, with initially white clad performers gradually donning costumes as they assume their roles. Though sometimes the actual actors are playing “actors,” sometimes their parts, in the same scene, smart writing and clearly etched acting avoids confusing the audience about which is which.
Essentially, what we’re seeing is a rough draft turning into a final draft, with the author trying and rejecting several possible alternatives (like character names) before choosing the final one. Unsurprisingly, that “backstage” trial-and-error process, in which Dickens banters and sometimes bickers with his actors, with several characters sometimes conversing on how he should write a single description, doesn’t really advance the frame story. It just makes me want him to get along to the finished product (scene, character name, whatever).
Nor does the frame offer much insight into either Dickens’s character or A Christmas Carol or even how and why he wrote it. However multifarious Dickens might have been, his story as presented here and shared with Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and the rest, lacks dramatic impact. Scenes conveying Dickens’s belief in the value of education over ignorance, for example, slow the action without adding depth.
That leaves playing it for laughs, of which the frame provides plenty, but they’re diluted amid too much repeated shtick. (Palmer calls his approach here Heart on a Shtick.) There’s nothing wrong with shtick comedy, of course, and Palmer and Bag & Baggage have done it delightfully in recent original Christmas shows, which Palmer created after his Dickens adaptation. (He got better.) But despite the cast’s quick repartee, sharp even on opening night, this frame story could easily lose 15-30 minutes without sacrificing much humor or story development, turning an intermittently entertaining two-and-a-half hour evening into a tighter, funnier, family friendlier 90-minute to two-hour delight.
Even as is, the show offers abundant holiday enchantment, especially in the second half when the pace really picks up and the story catches fire. Where Palmer does add a comic dimension, it’s sometimes very funny, if not laugh-out-loud-ha-ha, as in a sly, ah, humbuggery subtext hilariously conveyed by Joey Copsey during the Christmas party scene, and a cheerful skewering of Dickens’s blatantly sentimental pity-mongering embodied in Tiny Tim.
Moreover, the production deepens Dickens’s original by bringing out, in a non-preachy way, the novel’s less-remembered depictions of the societal darkness (unrestrained capitalist greed, disease, poverty, inhumane working conditions, etc.) surrounding the warm hearth of Dickens’s morality tale, which the author learned first-hand during his impoverished childhood.
Much of that context is expressed through the most assured production so far of Bag & Baggage’s rookie season in The Vault. Palmer’s antic blocking, which activates the entire intimate Vault stage area including the aisles, and strongly realized characters keep the audience engaged even during the slack moments when his script doesn’t.
Playing multiple roles each, the entire ensemble shines. As Scrooge, the vibrant and versatile Kymberli Colbourne turns in yet another compelling B&B performance, smoothly negotiating his implausible shift from curmudgeon to redemption. In the underwritten role of Dickens, Peter Schuyler contributes smooth energy and a solid singing voice. (Yes, there are Christmas carols.) Jessi Walters wickedly steals every scene her sublimely schizo Mrs. Cratchit is in. Every single hard-working actor onstage creates memorable characters who merit attention even when they’re not in the spotlight.
Speaking of which, Jim Ricks-White’s spectacular, sometimes ghostly, sometimes trippy lighting effects, which effectively show off the Vault’s new state of the art tech, sometimes threaten to outshine the action they illuminate, and no one will mind a bit. Melissa Heller’s evocative, imaginative costumes and yet another spare but brilliant Megan Wilkerson set design (especially in the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence) combine for a cheerfully colorful Christmas portrait, when not obscured by the frame.
Charles Dickens Writes “A Christmas Carol” continues through December 23 at The Vault Theater & Event Space, 350 E. Main St., Hillsboro. Tickets at www.bagnbaggage.org or call 503-345-9590.