A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by John DiDonna
Starring Dennis Neal
“Beth Marshall Presents” at The Garden Theater, Winter Garden FL
If you’re going to the theater just once this year, it might as well be that chestnut roasting in everyone’s fire, “A Christmas Carol.” While the drive out to Winter Garden requires a few tolls and navigating the ever shifting 408-426 -Turnpike spaghetti junction, but it’s no worse than the fate the Joseph Marley (Joe Swanberg) faces as he wanders the afterlife. Plus, the City of Winter Garden actually decorated for the holiday, unlike that other municipality that blew its allowance on a stadium.
So it’s Christmas Eve, and cranky old Scrooge (Neal) is up to his old evil boss tricks – unhealthy working conditions, constant threats and harassment against his worker, no benefits, an OSHA-violating workplace with open flames for minimal heat, and the sort of bad attitude that percolates down to the customer service level. Yeah, it’s just like working for your dad. We find out more about Marley in this play than most – for example he instituted the loathsome practice of giving junior clerks Christmas Day off WITH pay. It sound gruesome to today’s ear, but when this story was penned Christmas was a minor church holiday, less renowned than St. Stephens’s Day or Epiphany.
As the work day ends, Cratchit descends the endless stair case and Scrooge retires to his dramatically raked bed. He’s a mean one, but he did treat himself to a solid 3/4 inch plywood mattress. It’s great for his back pain. As he drifts into sleep, the smoldering and mouldering Marley arises in a mighty wind of green light and fog effects, and his voice is stuck on an afterworld super reverb. He warns Scrooge to mend his miserly ways, but it takes the GoCP (Samantha O’Hare) to start him on an actual emotional journey. He recalls abandonment issues in his childhood, the death of his older sister, the rejection of his money grubbing father, and more rejection from his girlfriend Belle (Felichia Chivaughn) who didn’t see the benefits of climbing out of Victorian poverty. He may be a cheap conniving screw, but at least his motivation is clear. By the time GoCF materializes (no actor, just a sort of growling special effect), he’s ready to shape up, and by sunrise he’s a new man. He does scare the pants of his house maid (Jamie Middleton) when she brings him his morning gruel; I think she may have a harassment case at this point. Scrooge then get in one of his most famous lines “I’m as light as a feather!” and his most inexplicable one about the poultry shop “in the next block over, but one.” Doesn’t that mean THIS block?
Marley made the strongest impression, he had a total kick butt entry, and at the end he’s released from his chains to go to heaven, or at least an afterlife with a Barcalounger so he can take a load off. Neal’s Scrooge nicely transitions from creepy evil to creepy good natured. Normally when someone makes this strong a personality switch there a bit of cerebellum that got loose and needs to be tacked back down, but not Neil – He’s seen the darkness. Both manifested ghosts (O’Hare and Alexander Mrazek) were very other worldly: clearly they were some sort of supernatural social workers and Scrooge was just another case in their busy schedule. On a negative note, the waifish children seemed well fed, but then this is the well to do sprawl side of Orlando’s ever creeping growth plan.
All of this holiday reform took place on a stunning set by Tommy Mangieri. Above the slanted bed and labyrinth stairs loomed a huge clock – Scrooge’s hours are limited if he doesn’t clean up. The numerals were mysterious, not quite Roman or Arabic, they’re non-figurative, non-representational shapes put us into the transcendent world where anything can happen. The good can become evil, the evil good, and the wealthy might toss a bone to the hungry, so along as it doesn’t dent the shopping trip to Neiman Marcus or Harrods. Be nice, at least for the next few weeks. There’s plenty of time for ghosts when you do your taxes.
For more information on The Garden Theatre, please visit www.gardentheatre.org