Portland Playhouse keeps ‘Christmas Carol’ classic

Amid plentiful variations of the play, this one sets the standard.

“Let all mortal flesh keep silent,” commands one of many hymns in Portland Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol“—but these actors don’t need divine help. Even the peers of Tiny Tim in the front rows sit still and stifle their every peep. That’s how riveting and reverent this production is, thanks to a well-considered story adaptation by Rick Lombardo and crisp, deft direction from Cristi Miles.

Plenty of local theaters are currently presenting a take on this classic. PCS’s “Twist Your Dickens” comically riffs on the story with a Second City sketch show. The Old Church will host a reading by veteran Thom Bray. Post5 offers two versions: Phillip J. Berns’ one-man recitation with all the voices, and “No One Likes Scrooge: A Bouffon Christmas Special.” Even Wanderlust Circus has one, “A Circus Carol,” accompanied by 3 Leg Torso. Each of these shows brings its own charms, but none carries the torch for a traditional ensemble play with all the trimmings like Portland Playhouse.

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In a way, this nod to tradition is surprising. This time last year, Playhouse was showing August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” set in the crumbling infrastructure of 1980’s Pittsburgh. The year before, it was the equally edgy “Angels In America,” at the heart of the New York AIDS epidemic. And before that? “Dying City,” a portrait of a Gulf War casualty. As a Victorian relic, “Carol” is the odd show out. However, as an unflinchingly sympathetic look at marginalized lives, the story is very much in this theater’s mode.

The music alone could make for a beautiful holiday concert, with brilliant arranger Anna Lackaff seemingly challenging herself to never use the same instrumental mix twice. For “Mortal Flesh,” the piano drones an ominous octave and the players sing a bleak, beautiful unison, diffusing into harmonies as they shift into “O Come Emmanuel.” A dramatic cymbal simmers, a tom booms and snow begins to sift down from the rafters. In lighter moments than this, peasants’ instruments are sprinkled in like so many spices. Bodhran, recorder, bells, and accordion are ushered in by the various players who double as narrators and characters.

Ensemble is a feature of this show by necessity. The stage is too small and too exposed (with audience on both sides) for elaborate set changes, so actors pilot furniture on and offstage like props. Four narrators uphold the four posters of Scrooge’s bed. Two confront him with his door handle and knocker. Musicians, too, inhabit the stage in drifts, or work the piano and drums from very close in the wings. The effect of such a peopled space is twofold: it makes the show that much more haunted, with characters more at the mercy of “unseen” forces than they care to acknowledge. It also directly checks Scrooge’s egocentric misperception of the world—namely, his erroneous presumption that he’s ever alone in it.

Of course, there are some standouts. Joshua Weinstein (recently seen in Artists Rep’s Foxfinder) is a magnet for audience eyes even while roving through bit roles and singing and speaking with the chorus. As the past’s Young Scrooge, he revives the pleasure/propriety struggle he addressed as a main character in “Foxfinder.” But as the present’s Topper, a bawdy bachelor at Scrooge’s nephew’s party, he shows another side: relaxed and randy, with no moral compunctions. Ashley Williams is the show’s reigning “Mrs.”, playing both Cratchit and Fezziwig’s better half with a warmth that occasionally flares into fiery. Danielle Purdy plays Belle with the same rueful, vulnerable intensity she brought to JAW’s “Mai Dang Lao” this summer.

The role of Scrooge goes to “rookie” Drew Harper, who holds his own from curmudgeon to changed man with veteran panache. But the Spirit Award goes to Jen Rowe—meaning, she plays ALL of the four spirits: Marley, Past, Present, and Future. Her Marley seems, in the interest of precision, a little clipped and rushed. Her other ghosts, however, are strong within their various traditions of character, and distinct from one another: Past has a high, flutey voice and a silvery laugh; Present is beatific and jocular with a holly headdress and a hearty guffaw; Future—as typical—is silent, but Rowe’s face is visible and stern rather than concealed as she trains a spotlight on various specters. Rowe plays Present particularly well, tethering lines that sometimes seem oblique directly to the concept of “the present” to imbue them with maximum meaning. Lombardo’s adaptation also helps. Ignorance and Want cling to the Present. The Present’s rapidly aging, and his time upon this earth grows short. The Present has more than 1800 “brothers”—the years A.D. in the time of Dickens. The distance between concept and character is especially well bridged here.

Dickensian hardscrabble can be tough to depict in a dignified, believable way, without seeming hammily maudlin or “awright guv’ner” cockney clichéd. Christmas music, too, can be hard to keep interesting. Even English accents and period costumes are no cinch to perfect, especially from a range of social classes and regions. But Playhouse manages all this gracefully, while preserving the humanist heart of the story. If you’re putting all your holiday shillings in one “Christmas Carol”‘s coffer, this version is your surest bet.

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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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