‘A Commedia Christmas Carol’ at Faction of Fools Theatre Company by Yvonne French

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In anticipation that A Commedia Christmas Carol is here to stay, I am giving it the most Washington of all things: an acronym (ACCC).

Left to Right: Paul Reisman and Joel David Santner. Photo by Second Glance Photography.
Left to Right: Paul Reisman and Joel David Santner. Photo by Second Glance Photography.

ACCC is based on the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol, and comes complete with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. But Writer/Director/Choreographer Matthew R. Wilson freshens his script à la Capitol Steps with political innuendo, jokes, puns, improv, and movie references. See if you can find The Matrix riff in the horsefly scene.

Wait, what? Horsefly scene? The poor Cratchit family has to eat something. Bob Cratchit (Joel David Santner) works for the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in a chilly counting-house. He begs to have Christmas day off to spend with his family, which includes the famous Tiny Tim (in a return performance by Gallaudet graduate Michael Sprouse).

Of course you remember the ghosts, but do you remember the part about Mr. Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, who has died seven years ago?  The Marley in ACCC won’t let you forget it. Toby Mulford is very somber and decorous as he briefs Scrooge on his impending visit by the three ghosts, maintaining his serious attitude even as they get into an extended punning session about pretense and intents and portents. It gets pretty intense. Such as, “If one does not walk among men in life, he is doomed to do it in death.”

Mulford’s seriousness stands out because most everything so far has been slapstick. The play is an example of commedia dell’arte, a 17th Century Italian theater style that uses stock characters. In ACCC a group of phantoms, or the Italian “pulcinella” (think Punch and Judy) represent collective humanity, a Greek chorus, or, as the program explains “Everyman and No Man, an unsung hero who couldn’t make it on his own.” They are part of the scene and they are affected by the action, but they also comment on it  physically, forming an unspoken partnership with the audience whose members can then feel complicit in passing judgement on the main characters.

Paul Reisman embodies regret as Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him to see his younger days, wistfully using his hands to follow strains of music to a dance that he didn’t join when he was young. It brought tears that would have been streaming  if I had caught him being more crotchety in the earlier scenes, but I was distracted by the madcap antics of the phantoms and by the glorious masks, another hallmark of commedia dell’arte.

Left to Right: Paul Reisman and Toby Mulford. Photo by Second Glance Photography.
Left to Right: Paul Reisman and Toby Mulford. Photo by Second Glance Photography.

A decorous Mulford also plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, conducting Scrooge through an evening with his nephew and his wife, played by Tyler Herman and Julie Garner. Like the rest of the versatile cast, they both double as others. Joel David Santner plays the Ghost of Christmas Past and Cratchit and can only be compared to the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz .With his peppy dance movements, he is just simply that likable despite the disturbing red mask. All the masks, which were designed by Tara Cariaso especially for this production, are art pieces. They range from oversized, puppet-like heads to leering, sinister visages too small for the wearer’s face.

The lighting by Andrew F. Griffin went especially well with the masks, rendering Scrooge’s eyes inscrutable between protruding brow and crooked, beak-like nose. The eyes were a character in their own right. Sound by Thomas Sowers and music composed  by Jesse Terrill complement the set by Ethan Sinnott. The effect reminded me of the German expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari but with cartoon-inspired updates. In props by Kristen Pilgrim, the gravestone that came floating out of nowhere and hovered to a stop was wacky and wonderful.

The costume (by Denise Umland) for the uncannily tall Ghost of Christmas Future is sublime in the sense of being both wonderful and terrifying. In this sequence, Scrooge sees his funeral as a black-and-white film montage (by Santner). May all who see this play find it as cathartic as he did!

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A Commedia Christmas Carol plays through December 22, 2013 at Faction of Fools at Elstad Auditorium at Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets. purchase them online.