Charles Dickens loved the theater. As the richest, most famous author in Victorian England, as well as that era's most beloved and admired writer, he couldn't get enough of the stage.
As a young man floundering for a career, he was granted an audition for the renowned Charles Mathews company, headquartered at London's Lyceum Theatre. In his application letter, he wrote approvingly that he had "a strong perception of character and oddity, and a natural power of reproducing in my own person what I have observed in others." He missed the audition with a severe cold, and when the company's next tryouts came about, he was already working as a journalist and had found his true calling in writing. The world of the stage would have to wait, but not for long.
Dickens wrote numerous plays and acted in amateur theatrics, and was regarded as a perceptive director and accomplished actor. His passion for playacting and love for actors stayed with him all his life. (See Ellen Ternan, the 18-year-old actress whom Dickens scandalously fell in love with in 1858, separating irrevocably from his wife Catherine, who had given him ten children.)
Dickens is the most theatrical of all writers, his scenes brilliantly crafted as if meant to be staged. He sets scenes with precision, fills characters with action, and knows a good exit line. When he embarked on hundreds of "public reading" tours of his work, his passion for the stage found its most exquisite fulfillment. Although he started reading for charity, the clamor for his performances was so incessant, he quickly grasped the untold financial opportunities. There were other "readers" of the era, but megastar Dickens had the best material. And he loved to perform.
He made a fortune, and his immense fame grew even wider. His most popular reading was always A Christmas Carol (1843), his "ghostly little book," an immediate universal phenomenon upon publication.
So, it's in the grand tradition of "monopolylogue" ("one actor, many characters") that John Stevens has adapted and stars at Country Playhouse in his own one-man version of Dickens' most famous tale. Seeing this rival on stage, Mr. Dickens, using his own words when he was writing Carol, would no doubt, "weep, then laugh, then weep again" at Stevens' dexterous, finely appointed performance. The show's a pip.
Dickens would act selections from his novels, but he never moved from behind his reader's desk set up on a table. The simple setting would be framed with maroon drapes, and he was brightly lighted so all could see his face and hands, which were, by every contemporary account, highly expressive. A more contemporary take, Mr. Stevens' setting is minimal: a plump chair stage-right where he can "read" to us; an accountant's high desk to represent Scrooge's counting house; a bed near tiled fireplace (like Dickens describes) for the miser's cramped and dingy room; a raggedy table and chairs for the Cratchits' meager home; and, later, a bedraggled headstone stage-left upon which will be projected the fateful occupant's name. All else is elegantly conjured through Dickens' ripe Victorian prose, rich as goose gravy, and Steven's immaculate impersonations.
The novella is expertly condensed, hitting all the classic high spots: dreadful Marley dragging his chain; the three Christmas Spirits (Past, Present and Yet To Come) who haunt Scrooge; the wretchedly poor but happy Cratchits and lame Tiny Tim; fiancée Belle who relinquishes young Scrooge to her rival, his pursuit of profit; the two exasperated solicitors who get the coldest of shoulders from Scrooge when asked for a donation for the poor; jolly Fezziwig; haggard rag picker Old Joe, who barters for Scrooge's bed curtains, blankets, and the shirt he is to be buried in.
By the end, at Scrooge's ultimate redemption, you'd swear Stevens was wearing a nightshirt all along, the telling is so vivid. Of course, you might also swear you could taste the greasy fog of industrial London; or see the claw-like hands of the dismal figures of Want and Ignorance that Christmas Present reveals under his sumptuous green mantle; or smell the roast turkey and steaming figgy pudding that bespeak homespun holiday charm.
Stevens play them all, or describes the scenes, with consummate skill. His Scrooge is pinched and stooped; Christmas Present a magnanimous outpouring of Scottish burr; Marley a wail of torment; Belle is pale resignation; Fezziwig all ancient cheer and rosy cheek. It's a magnificent cast of characters, expertly depicted. When Scrooge, at last redeemed, flings open the bedroom window to see if it's really morning, Stevens takes in a deep breath, as if Scrooge has finally been cleansed. It's a lovely moment that passes in a blink, but it's as lasting as that new, innocent twinkle in his eye.
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To be fair, there are two other people in this play whose work adds tasty layers to Dickens' sumptuous word feast: light and sound designer Rod Harty, and director Bonnie Hewett. With subtlety and atmosphere, Harty livens up the tale by weaving sounds of children playing, midnight chimes, Marley's clanking chains, and carols with shadowy pools and warm spotlights that bespeak London at midnight or festive gaslight merriment. During the telling director Hewett adroitly shifts focus, as Stevens roams the stage, cavorts up and down the aisles, or sinks into the armchair to read verbatim from a large gilt-edged tome, as if relating a cozy bedtime story. Wherever he is, he brings us smack inside the story and shakes us alive.
While there is much to recommend in the Alley Theatre's annual production with its stage wizardry and large cast, there's always room for an unadulterated version of Dickens' magnificent classic. John Stevens' adaptation at Country Playhouse is like opening the smallest present under the tree and finding, within, the entire world. That makes for a very merry Christmas.
John Stevens's one-man show of Charles Dickens's abiding tale of Christmas goodness continues through December 24 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at countryplayhouse.org or call 713-467-4497. $12-$15.