A one-man ‘Christmas Carol’ that spotlights Dickens

From playing Tiny Tim to reciting the whole show off-book, Phillip Berns relishes the role(s) he's grown into—most notably, narrator.

What “The Nutcracker” is to dancers, “A Christmas Carol” is to actors: a show presented regularly in almost every town, that you can do every year, and gradually grow into. You start off as a young Cratchit (ideally—gender irrelevant—Tiny Tim). Next you’re Ignorance or Want, or Fannie or the boy who buys the turkey, then you’re Martha or Peter or Boy Ebenezer or (provided you’re mysterious enough) Christmas Past. By high school, you can be Belle or Young Man Ebenezer…and finally, all the remaining roles open up to you.

Phillip J. Berns and Chris Beatty perform at Picnic House.

Phillip J. Berns and Chris Beatty perform at Picnic House.

Phillip J. Berns’ experience of “A Christmas Carol” follows this model. He began acting at age nine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, playing Tiny Tim in his town’s production, and picking up other roles in subsequent years.

“My dad also used to tape every version that aired on TV,” he explained at the show’s Post5 opening night. “We had a drawer full of VHS’s of it.” Such prolonged, immersive exposure to Dickens’ well-worn text might inoculate other actors against the story’s power, but it only enriched Berns’ appreciation. “I love this story,” he gushes, “I never get tired of it.” Hence the one-man show he’s been refining since 2011, “presented for the first time off-book!”

If Berns loves “Carol” as much as he claims, it certainly shows. And if he doesn’t…feigning this much enthusiasm for the material makes him the best actor ever. Naturally, he “does the voices”: His Scrooge is imperious with rolled R’s, nasal and wheezing with age. His Ghost of Christmas Past has a hollow, almost echoey timbre; Present is jocular save sudden flares of blustering temper. Marley’s Ghost is, as yet, a bit undelineated from Scrooge—but rattles, thrashes, and whips a real chain for emphasis.

Despite the inherent blocking challenge for one man playing multiple parts, Berns uses the whole stage and even ventures into the seating. He gives animated performances, confident that his own unflappable command of who’s who in the script will pull the audience through any confusion. About 90 percent of the time, he’s right, and we see a multiplicity of characters interacting where he’s placed them in his mind’s eye. The other 10 percent shows some flailing, but he coasts through on charm and comedy.

Berns, himself, is an interesting character—not, as some others at Post5, a natural lead, but rather a studious observer, a tireless supporter, and a nimble, exacting mimic of other, broader personas. He’s slight of stature and one of his eyes is inclined to rove—though with each successive performance this past year, he’s reined that tendency in tighter. Now barely perceptible, it’s less a flaw than a unique tool in his character kit. Berns has dabbled in drag, but eschews sexiness in favor of funny, careworn characters like Phyllis Diller and Carol Channing. In keeping with this pattern, Berns plays all the “Christmas Carol” characters, including women, well—but none better than the story’s narrator, Charles Dickens.

It’s typical for narration to play some role in stage versions of “Carol,” but much of Dickens’ original wit is too frequently pared away in favor of simplicity. The author has a (bad? good? undeniable) habit of contradicting or complicating his main premise with quippy asides. He starts almost as soon as the story, using the popular simile “dead as a doornail” to describe Marley—then in the next breath, challenging it! Coffin-nails actually seem deader, he says, but who is he to argue with conventional wisdom? Only after resolving this petty semantic self-argument does he proceed with the tale.

This pattern of questioning his own (and also society’s) assumptions persists throughout Dickens’ voice; in fact, it’s almost as “Dickensian” as wage inequality. Dickens routinely admonishes his readers to think twice—sometimes via moralistic rhetoric, but almost as often by the cagier means of example-setting. His way of reframing various arguments, of self-second-guessing, becomes a model one can follow to correct for bias and think more broadly. Berns leaves most of these asides intact, and dispatches them with meaningful inflection, proving he really gets it.

As of opening night, the actor and his keyboard accompanist, Post5 music director Chris Beatty, were still working out a few wrinkles. The music behind the first scene was unsuitably sentimental and warm, full of the kind of wafty arpeggios, major sevenths, and uncertain resolves with which a pianist fills space while puzzling. After the first cue (a bell, I believe) the soundtrack smoothed out into well-timed clock chimes, ominous rumbling, and a set of Christmas tunes, variously major and minor to meet the story’s changing tone. “He’s so great to play for; he has such a particular cadence,” says Beatty, who, though part of the show, doubles as a responsive audience, laughing, clapping, and occasionally toasting Berns with a beer. (Pro tip: a pint glass might be more suitable than a PBR can).

“It’s the first night I’ve worked with the robe,” Berns confided of a baggy piece of Scrooge costumery while he and Beatty tended the theater bar at intermission. “A few minutes in, I was like, “I definitely can’t wear THIS the whole time.” Not noticeably hampered, he’d shucked the garment off mid-scene as if the change was planned. Berns also polled friends about whether or not to announce the staves at future shows. “I didn’t do it this time,” he told fellow actor Chip Sherman. “I didn’t miss it,” Sherman assured.

Already scheduled for 8 performances at Post5 and two dinner theater shows at Picnic House, up from just 6 shows last year, this engaging solo act could foreseeably become Berns’ holiday bread and butter. Good thing he’s developed a taste for it.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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