At Trinity – 40th annual ‘A Christmas Carol’ cranks up the power

Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

If you thought that doing A Christmas Carol for forty years running at Trinity Rep might lead to a diminution of power, energy, and imagination, you need to guess again. After all, this is Trinity. Surprising and rousing the audience is what they live for.

The 2017 version of the venerable Dickens story opened on November 9 and runs through December 31. When you go, be ready for a high intensity experience.

Essentially a morality play, A Christmas Carol tells the tale of the miserable skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge, who finds spiritual redemption and discovers the crucial importance of generosity after a wild night of confrontations with the fearsome ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley and three phantasmagorical spirits: Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.

The 40th anniversary show is directed by company veterans Angela Brazil and Stephen Thorne. It’s on stage in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater, upstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence. Be prepared for a highly-charged production.

Mean as a junk-yard dog at the beginning, Scrooge angrily mistreats his clerk, Bob Cratchit, two women soliciting charitable donations, children in the street, a group that gathers to sing carols, his own nephew, Fred, and his domestic employees, all at a white heat level. At the outset, prospects for a miraculous conversion seem unlikely at best.

This is a man who so disdains others that he bangs on his desk or slams down his ledger books to get Cratchit’s attention rather than bother to speak.

Yet, when Marley’s Ghost warns him about the three spirits he wavers for a second, revealing a tiny crack in his façade of angry scorn. With the appearance of each successive spirit the crack begins to widen.

Christmas Past arrives with reams of notes about Scrooge’s life which she rips up one at a time after making him look at his own history, his youth, his lost fiancée, his first job, and his transition into an avaricious, single-minded, money-obsessed loner.

The experience of seeing again the joy and camaraderie he felt during his apprenticeship at the Fezziwig Company begins to awaken Ebenezer’s long dormant emotions. An unfamiliar shock of nostalgia hits him, and the dim stirring of awareness of what he has lost begins.

The Spirit of Christmas Present thunders onto the scene wearing tap shoes, and he continues the process of enlightenment, proceeding with staccato heel and toe riffs to punctuate his lessons about the responsibility everyone has to treat others with consideration and care. His flights of terpsichorean virtuosity are marvelous. Scrooge’s efforts to emulate him are less so, but at this point he is playing the scene for laughs.

As his journey from outcast miser to repentant humanitarian continues, Scrooge loses none of his fire, he merely re-directs it. Limber and fit, even at his most challenged, he may be made up to seem old, but he acts like a man in his prime.

The last spirit, who shows him what the future may hold is actually portrayed by three hideous apparitions who arrive with a tumbrel bearing bodies. After watching “Old Jo,” the rag and bone woman, bargain with the servants who picked his body after he died, Scrooge sees the light.

He is transformed into the opposite of what he was, now bestowing largess upon everyone he encounters. He reconciles with his nephew. He showers Bob Cratchit and his family with resources and support. He becomes a philanthropist and a boon companion. It was all accomplished in one night, he crows.

The depth of his makeover seems a bit dubious in this production, though, not so much an epiphany as a people-pleasing move. What appears to be missing or muted is the true change of heart that usually makes Scrooge’s change of behavior so moving. It almost seems as though he has gone from a full bore curmudgeon to a full on high roller who is as flamboyant in his profligacy as he was in his miserliness. Since he must throw his wealth around to be liked he will do it with as much ferocity as he practiced his parsimony.

His utterly manic reaction to the new vistas that have opened before him plays well to the crowd, but it is not reflective of true spiritual introspection; it’s more a kind of slap-happy insight than a re-birth.

If you don’t mind the surfing where diving is more traditional, this production is very entertaining. On an extremely minimal set, there is no shortage of action, much costume finery, a host of trap door entrances and exits, lovely music and song by the cast, dancing, and gratifying special effects. Think slides for the kids and Scrooge to enter a scene, a zip line for the Spirit of Christmas Present’s arrival, a particularly gruesome, yet convincing Marley’s Ghost, and an always good musical ensemble.

Joe Wilson, Jr. is tireless, compelling, and always on as Scrooge. John Noble Barrack, a third year Brown/Trinity MFA student, is winning as Bob Cratchit. Long-time company members Janice Duclos and Rachael Warren excel in multiple roles, Warren being especially effective as Mrs. Fezziwig, who gets hauled about on a cable. Duclos makes a wonderful Old Jo. Brown/Trinity MFA student Jack Dwyer does well as Fred. Daniel Duque-Estrada is chillingly good as Marley’s Ghost. Anne Scurria is fine as the Undertaker and the Ghost of Christmas Past and in other smaller parts. Orlando Hernandez is commanding as the tap-dancing Ghost of Christmas Present, and Rebecca Gibel makes an excellent Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s washer woman.

Christmas comes but once each year, and what would it be without Trinity’s A Christmas Carol?