A Christmas Carol – Digital Reading 2020 Presented by the Pioneer Theatre Company

Three ghosts may have visited Scrooge, but the Pioneer Theatre Company provided audiences with five segments of A Christmas Carol to visit this Holiday Season. The company presented an original rendition of Dickens’ classic as part of their Let It Show: A Perfectly Pandemic Production series.

COVID-19 restrictions have inspired creativity among theatrical companies. Not only have they discovered new ways to bring theatre to audiences, they’ve developed new means of telling traditional tales. The Pioneer Theatre company achieved both with their retelling of a Holiday standard.

Versions of A Christmas Carol abound this time of year. So many that it’s difficult to imagine fresh approaches to the story. The Pioneer Theatre Company reworked the novel into a quintet of performances for online broadcasts. Each show covered one “stave” or chapter of Dickens’ novel. Only three performers delivered the narration and acted all the roles during each reading. The same actors performed in the first and final shows. The other performances contained different players. Each one featured a different director.

From their own homes, the actors read Dickens’ novel. They crafted different voices to portray each character. The narrators alternated. The audience experienced a hybrid between listening to an audio book and watching a theatrical performance.

The production team displayed their Holiday spirit throughout the production. The directors used the same snowflake wallpaper for all five shows. Red and black checkered paper wrapped the performers’ scripts.

The actors applied their own brands of Christmas cheer to their sets. Behind Elizabeth Ramos, a stocking hung from a garland covered shelf. Tito Livias read in front of a fireplace. A winter village decorated the mantle. Nafeesa Monroe placed a red poinsettia over her right shoulder. Collen Baum surrounded herself with a snowman, a stocking and a wreath.

Dickens’ verbose prose can be a difficult slog for those living in the twenty first century. The actors read and performed with immense enthusiasm. Everyone cast in these shows maintained the same level of excitement throughout their performances.

The actors appeared in blocks on the Vimeo screen. Unless delivering a soliloquy or if two characters spoke to one another, the audience could see all three performers.

Pioneer broadcast the first stave entitled “Marley’s Ghost” on December 5th. Their Artistic Director, Karen Azenberg, directed this piece. It featured Elizabeth Ramos, Greg Balla and Vince McGill.  Ms. Ramos delivered stellar narration.

The highlight of this segment came when Mr. Balla portrayed Marley’s ghost opposite Mr. McGill’s Scrooge. Mr. Balla adopted a malevolent tone when addressing the Christmas curmudgeon. After growling his lines earlier in the stave, Mr. McGill spoke with a tremulous voice. Mr. McGill also applied humor to the role. In response to Marley’s revelation that three spirits would visit Scrooge, Mr. McGill wittily replied, “I’d rather not.”

The second stave “The First of Three Spirits” aired on December 9th. Pirrone Yousefzadeh directed. Corey Allen, Laura Hall and Tito Livas read. Mr. Livias brought passion to the role of Scrooge. He showed effusive excitement when revisiting his childhood school. Mr. Allen captured the Ghost of Christmas Past’s ethereal nature. Laura Hall applied fantastic vocal variety to her narration.

Ms. Hall and Mr. Allen played one of the novel’s most gripping scenes. As Scrooge’s fiancée Belle, Mr. Allen explained to Scrooge (now portrayed by Ms. Hall) that “another idol had replaced her” in his heart. The two performers captured the devastation, loss and heartbreak in the exchange.            

On December 13th, “The Second of Three Spirits” premiered. Shelly Butler directed this third stave. Colleen Baum played Mrs. Cratchit, Fred’s wife and others in addition to narrating. Ben Cherry took on the roles of Scrooge and Tiny Tim among others. Nafeesa Monroe portrayed the Ghost of Christmas Present, Bob Cratchit and miscellaneous characters.

Dickens included a host of imagery in this chapter. The performers delivered palpable depictions of the sights and smells of Victorian London at Christmastime.

Much laughter occurred in this stave. All of the performers delivered hearty chuckles during Fred’s party. Ms. Monroe’s Ghost of Christmas Present performed the most energetic laughter throughout.

Ms. Monroe showed that her character could spread more than fun and Holiday joy. When Mr. Cherry’s tremulous voice inquired about Tiny Tim’s future, Ms. Monroe answered by using his own words about “surplus population” against him. His somber expression replied. Ms. Monroe showed the ghost’s anger when introducing Scrooge to the children Ignorance and Want.  

 Director Kareem Fahmy adopted an un-cozy, un-Merry Christmas approach to setting when “The Third of Three Spirts” made its appearance on December 19th. At rise, performers LaToya Cameron, Jamen Nanthakumar and Jeff Talbott stood in front of blank screens. Then the ambiance reflected the eerie aura of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. A dark background covered by a gray mist appeared behind the actors. It oozed a sense of horror.

When the action occurred inside the Cratchits’ home, the interior of a small Victorian house appeared on the screen. The setting of the fourth stave mirrored its beginning. Once more, the background became blank.

LaToya Cameron portrayed an outstanding version of Scrooge. She also played Mrs. Cratchit, Caroline and others. Ms. Cameron narrated expressively. Her nervous trembling when the Ghost instructed Scrooge to remove the blanket from the dead man’s face enhanced the tension. The performer expressed shock upon discovering his identity at his grave.

Jamen Nanthakumar delivered memorable renditions of the Cratchit kids, the charwoman and the “fat man with a large chin.” For the latter, the director only showed him from his           nose to just below his neck. The performer used a squeaky voice and even wore a shawl when playing the charwoman. His eye shifting captured the character’s sly personality.

When not narrating, Jeff Talbot performed the roles of Peter, Old Joe the pawnbroker and a moving Bob Cratchit. When lamenting Tiny Tim’s passing, Mr. Talbot’s voice broke up as he restrained himself from sobbing. Moments later, in a gravelly tone he said, “I am very happy.” His delivery sounded as though he wanted to convince himself.

The director included the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as a character. The audience could only see a bare hand and a sleeve from a black robe hanging off the actor’s arm. Its trembling when confronting Scrooge made for the show’s most dramatic moment.     

The fifth stave served as “The End of It” on December 23rd. Rosalyn Coleman Willams directed. The three actors from the first reading returned to the screen. This time, the director cast Greg Balla as Scrooge. Vince McGill played opposite him as Cratchit in addition to delivering animated narration. Elizabeth Ramos narrated and played various children; even using a credible cockney accent.

Mr. Balla showed himself just as adept at portraying an ecstatic figure. His giddiness led him to execute the task of “laughing until he cried.”

Mr. Balla and Mr. McGill played one of the show’s best scenes. Mr. McGill portrayed Cratchit entering the office late. Mr. Balla’s Scrooge began chastising him. Then, in Scrooge’s mean voice, said he would be raising his salary. With respect to Harold Pinter, never did two performers make a pause so engaging.   

At the stave’s conclusion, all the actors who performed in the series joined together for the concluding, “God bless us, everyone.”

For Christmas 2020, the Pioneer Theatre Company developed a creative interpretation of A Christmas Carol. Five directors adapted this nineteenth century novel for performance on an online platform. The actors brought infectious enthusiasm to their readings. All this occurred during a pandemic. To quote a line Laura Hill read: If that’s not high praise, tell me higher and I’ll use it.

Those who missed the original broadcasts can still watch all five performances. They will be available until December 31st at: A Christmas Carol – Digital Reading 2020 | Pioneer Theatre Company.

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