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  • Writer's pictureLaurence J. Sasso, Jr.

At Trinity – Christmas Carol rises high, hits home

Before the start of Trinity Rep’s forty-fifth annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, on press night, (November 10), Artistic Director Curt Columbus took the stage. He offered heartfelt thanks to the audience for being there.

He also welcomed them back to the theater at 201 Washington Street in Providence for the first time in nearly two years. The return of live performance was hailed as an act of shared faith.

By going live Trinity was displaying its belief in the loyalty and courage of its audience, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. The people in the seats were reciprocating the sentiment. They were demonstrating their trust in the resilience of the performing arts in the face of devastating adversity.

Columbus was greeted with sustained applause from the patrons, who were obviously aware of their role in sealing the deal. It seemed like an expression of confidence. It felt like an endorsement.

Next, a member of the acting company stepped forward and in a short speech acknowledged the Native American communities on whose land the city of Providence was originally built and spoke of the role of enslaved peoples’ labors in the development of the nation.

The statement is reflective of Trinity’s proactive stance on racial equity and an expression of its commitment to becoming “a fully anti-racist organization,” a formal initiative that is described at length in the printed program and on the theater’s website.

Then in a moving symbolic act, the ghost light, which at least metaphorically had been burning for the entire time the theater was dark, was turned off. The show began, and what a show it is.

Long time viewers of Trinity’s holiday tradition of offering A Christmas Carol, will be heartened by the choice of Tim Crowe to play Scrooge and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley to be Marley and Old Joe. It is a case of two amazing talents joined in this audience-favorite vehicle.

While the seasoned actors display memorable energy and drive reminiscent of their youthful selves, they also bring to the production incomparable depth and the perspective of the veteran performers that they are.

The play is not its former self. This year it very effectively lifts up Dickens’ masterful melding of the naturalistic truth of a society gravely unsympathetic to poverty and blind to the needs of the underprivileged with the power of belief in the supernatural as a vector for revealing and possibly reversing this abhorrent reality.

While the production still has a sufficient portion of fun, even joy, possibly more than ever it lifts the curtain on the impact of deprivation, want, and oppression on those disadvantaged by the accident of birth.

Too, it illuminates the assumptions of superiority bestowed by position and the amassing of wealth. This all sounds heavy, but so is the weight of poverty, oppression, and exploitation.

Peace of mind, which is essential to happiness and the ability to appreciate the value of giving, is the prize of great value that Scrooge has turned his back on.

His fantastical journey with the three spirits is, in truth, a tour of his own past and a reckoning with the choices he made at each crucial juncture in his life. It provides him a roadmap as he goes through the metamorphosis from cynic to soulful philanthropist. Crowe’s performance portraying Scrooge’s transformation is iconic, and it is indelible.

This is his 14th time playing the part, and his portrayal is immense. He is the perfect image of a man masking inner torment with outward aggression, a being ripe for a chance to renew his spirit.

This edition of A Christmas Carol at Trinity Rep is more than entertainment. It is life-affirming theater, as practiced by talented conjurers of compelling performance art.

Led by the collective experience of Crowe and Pitts-Wiley and the boundless vitality of the rest of the cast as directed by Joe Wilson, Jr., the show doesn’t merely command attention; it makes you care.

The imposing set, dominated by gothic brick parapets, provides a stage that is ominously dwarfed by a design which lends a feeling of oppression, relieved only by some light-enhancing stained-glass windows.

The dark wood of Scrooge and Marley’s office furniture further suggests a somber meanness of nature that Ebenezer confirms with his outbursts at his clerk Bob Cratchit, his nephew Fred, a pair of solicitors seeking donations for the poor, and some children singing Christmas carols.

At once it is apparent that the outward demeanor and aggressive parsimony that defines Scrooge is fed by a deep inner bitterness. It exceeds the superficial bounds that such qualities might assume in a mere hard-driving businessman. This is more than affectation. It is from his core. It is his demon.

Marley’s sobering arrival as a ghost from beyond the grave, come to warn Scrooge of his fate, is not as grotesque as in some prior productions. He comes bearing a message, and he aims to deliver it while there is time. Frightening Scrooge is a necessary side-effect.

He is there to make a point, not to terrify him. Marley can’t help looking like a ghoul. He is one. Scrooge must make of it what he will, and despite his protestations that Marley’s presence might be the result of eating “an underdone potato,” Ebenezer takes the meaning.

Thus begins the familiar transit of this cautionary tale cum morality play. The Spirit of Christmas Past arrives and leads Scrooge on the tour of his avaricious choices at the crucial moments of his life.

The pivotal scene in the entire play takes place when the Spirit brings Ebenezer to view the Christmas party at the factory of Mr. Fezziwig, his former overseer when he was a young businessman starting out. Rather than the traditional quadrille that is typically included to show the merriment created by the unrestrained Fezziwig, this show offers something entirely different.

What we witness is an improvisational foot-stomping challenge and response kind of competitive romp. The dancers try to outdo each other with athletic, yet graceful, can-you-top-this exchanges of complex moves. The participants attempt to outdo one another in intensity and invention.

It is nothing less than the beating heart of the entire play. Before you witness it, you see the world as it was. After you experience it, you think of the world as it might be.

Alert and sensitive viewers probably will still be replaying the effects of this explosive scene long after the final curtain. It isn’t comic. It is transformative. . . offering a glimpse of what it might be like in a society where joy and feeling have been liberated by affirmation. Yes, the galvanic dance is capable of that much impact.

Riveting in the scene is Taavon Gamble, who plays Young Marley, and who teaches dance in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Program.

The rest of the show follows the traditional course, especially as Scrooge is confronted by the baggage of his past. However, when the Ghost of Christmas Present, played with insouciant abandon by Stephen Thorne, leads him by the hand through painful moments, it forces him to see how he is regarded by his contemporaries.

The contrast between the cavalier self-rejection of his past opportunities for human connection that might have prevailed had he only been human enough to allow himself to feel empathy is devastating.

As the third spirit shows him what his fate might be if he doesn’t come to terms with himself, we know this 19th century version of an intervention will be successful. The drug of wealth will lose its appeal, the intoxication of power will wear off without a hangover.

Like we who are watching it happen, Scrooge has seen the possibility of the future in his recollection of the lost promise of the past. The dance of life is fueled by hope. It is embraced and lives in his heart. It will inhabit his soul.

The ending of this Christmas Carol is slightly marred by truncation. After Scrooge has his epiphany and is unshackled from his greed and cynicism, the usual ending would entail a visit to his nephew Fred’s home. He typically goes there to make amends for his cruel rejection of his only family at the outset. We also usually see the Cratchits receive the giant turkey sent by Ebenezer. In this version these climactic scenes are greatly compressed as everything happens at Scrooge’s office/home. It is a bit less satisfying, but the finale is still joyous and compelling.

Of the 45 editions of A Christmas Carol at Trinity Repertory Theater, I would place this one in the top half dozen, and I have had the good fortune to have seen them all. Joe Wilson, Jr. and the cast can be proud of what they have wrought.

Special notice must be given to the work of Rodney Witherspoon II as Bob Cratchit, Ava Gaudet as The Ghost of Christmas Past and in several other roles. Mauro Hantman is Fred and also plays Young Scrooge. He displays a good rich singing voice in this production. Richard Donelly takes the part of a somewhat subdued Fezziwig. Madeleine Barker is fine as Mrs. Dilber and other roles. Also appearing are Carla Martinez as Lucy Cratchit, Shaffany Terrell as Martha Cratchit, Warnsey Wiggins, Jr. as Dick Wilkins, and Aimee Hamrick as Mrs. Cratchit.

A Christmas Carol runs through January 2, 2022 in person at the Elizabeth and Malcom Chace Theater upstairs in the Lederer Theater Center, and will be available for streaming online December 6, 2021 through January16, 2022. For more information contact the trinity box office at 401-351-4242.

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