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A Christmas Carol at Country Playhouse: A Tour de Force

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The setup:

Charles Dickens's immortal tale of misanthropic Scrooge and his ultimate redemption is given a splendid retelling in Country Playhouse's one-man show adapted and performed by John Stevens.

The execution:

Although he was unaware that the years between 1867 and 1870 would be his last -- the author died, aged 58, in 1870 after a stroke -- Dickens spent them on a whirlwind traveling circuit throughout England and America, reading from his novels. Although immensely wealthy from all his books, Dickens, remembering his childhood and his father's humiliating stay in debtors' prison, had an inordinate fear of losing it all. He loved acting (and actress Ellen Ternan in particular, leaving his wife to live with her in 1858), dabbled in theatrics as an amateur, and might very well have become an actor if his writing hadn't taken off, so he was a natural onstage. His dramatic readings were a spectacular success and so profitable that, when he died, one-half of his estate was estimated to come from them.

So there's an honored tradition of reading and performing Christmas Carol, Dickens's "ghost story," and Stevens, who adapted this for himself to play, captures the very essence of mystery, compassion, poverty, comedy and salvation that is so critical for the story's success.

Throughout, he reads verbatim transcripts from a large gilt-edged tome, then joins in the action and plays scenes with himself as all the characters. He is aided immensely by Rod Harty's atmospheric sound effects that weave children playing, midnight chimes, clanking chains -- for Marley, of course -- and festive carols in the background that add another tasty layer to Dickens's so-sumptuous feast.

The setting is simple yet effective: a bed and fireplace (edged in tile just like Dickens describes) for Scrooge's decrepit house; a worn kitchen table and chairs for the Cratchit home; a scrivener's desk for Scrooge's business at the counting house; and a tombstone off to the side for the fateful visit of the last ghost. On the other side sits a comfy armchair into which Stevens perches every now and then to read to us sections of the story. The lighting, also by Harty, conveys damp and fog, mist and midnight, gaslamp and ghostly specter with deft color and dramatic timing. It's all of a piece, and acquits Dickens's timeless tale with honor and dignity.

Playing the entire gambit of Dickens's Victorian world of 1843 is a tour de force, and Stevens is downright magnificent. He's had a lot of practice in Dickens lately, having just stepped from another iconic character, wicked and sly Fagin in Theatre Southwest's Oliver Twist, just last month. Everyone's alive: miser Scrooge with a slight crook in his back and pinched expression; the unimpassioned, yet droll, Ghost of Christmas Past, like a butler who doesn't know his place; tearful Belle, bidding her young fiancé Ebenezer goodbye, losing him to his true love, money; the gregarious, laughing Ghost of Christmas Present with his rolling Scottish burr and outsized love of life.

Then there's bedraggled Cratchit and his entire clan, with Tiny Tim, to cheer on the holidays when all seems lost; and the greasy Ragpicker, who barters for dead Scrooge's bedclothes. Through Stevens's unbridled imagination and flawless technique, when the evening's over you'd swear Scrooge was wearing a nightshirt throughout, or that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was in medieval cowl, and old Fezziwig fairly ate up that stage with his dancing. During the telling, Stevens roams the stage, cavorts up and down the aisles, lectures the audience from down front, or sinks into the armchair, as if he's relating a cozy bedtime story. Wherever he is, he brings us smack inside the story, shakes us alive and makes us see it, just like Dickens's magnificent prose.

I feel like Scrooge to mention such a niggling complaint, but mention it I must. Since Stevens uses that large book as his source when he's reading to us, couldn't he open it each time without riffling through the pages to find his place? I know it takes only seconds, but, to quote Dickens, it stops the action deader than a doornail. Since the text is obviously pasted inside, and he makes use of a red ribbon bookmark, couldn't he, or director Bonnie Hewett, whose controlling eye throughout is right and true, figure out how to mark the future passage so he can begin reading without such extraneous fumbling?

The verdict:

Because of wily magician John Stevens, whose writerly talents are as accomplished as his thespian ones, the universal world of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and those ghostly apparitions is brought vividly alive to touch our hearts. Dickens would have been rightly jealous of his detailed, sincere performance. No slight of hand here, it's all genuine -- the very nature of Christmas and Dickens's abiding message.

Charles Dickens's evergreen Christmas story of charity and goodness plays through December 18 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Buy tickets online at www.countryplayhouse.org or call 713-467-4497.

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