Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ at Delaware Theatre Company

The Delaware Theatre Company (DTC) is offering a time-honored classic for the holiday season: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Only Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the beloved tale is not your father’s Carol. With tongue firmly in cheek, Barlow’s version brings a freshness to the story one would think impossible after almost one hundred and seventy-five years. Playing in the Company’s Wilmington venue through December 30, 2016, this clever adaptation trusts the audience’s imagination to follow along on a freewheeling journey through Scrooge’s world.

Jeffrey C. Hawkins (Bob Cratchett) and Tiny Tim. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media.

Dickens drew on his own childhood hardships for many of his stories; young Ebenezer’s troubles are very similar to those of Dickens’ own youth.  Written in 1842, A Christmas Carol was serialized in the newspaper; readers got the story in sections over a period of a couple of months. Charles Dickens was a champion of the underdog and used his fiction to point out the many inequities in British society. He was writing during the great Industrial Age when many were living in horrible conditions; his rich, vibrant characters—and use of humor in many cases—shed light on society’s shortcomings. Though created in the Victorian era, many of Dickens’ insights have remained timely throughout the intervening years. Dickens also used family members as inspiration for characters.

Dickens had a sister named Fan (Scrooge’s sister in the novella) who died young; she was the mother of a son who was crippled—the inspiration for Tiny Tim. Dickens’ novella met with instant success and critical acclaim. The book was published at a time when England was experiencing a nostalgic interest in its forgotten Christmas traditions. It was also during this era that new customs, such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards, were being introduced.

Dickens’ works are wonderful source material for stage adaptations, and I have seen a number over the years. Barlow’s version of A Christmas Carol had its World Premiere at DTC four years ago, where it was a huge success. The production then went to New York City the following year and to London’s West End the year after that. Barlow revised his script a bit for the London version, and those changes are being incorporated in Delaware Theatre Company’s current production. Employing seven actors and minimal props and set, as well puppets and innovative staging, this version of A Christmas Carol puts an unexpected spin on the tale, as the company breaks the fourth wall throughout the show and there are anachronisms galore.

Under the deft direction of Steve Tague, the DTC ensemble shines. Tague’s pace is brisk, yet never leaves the audience behind. The cleverness of the stagecraft is a joy to watch, one wonders how much is scripted by Barlow and how much is the invention of Tague and his troupe of gifted performers. Each member of the cast excels at the comedy and precise timing needed to pull off the many physical bits required for the production.

Anchoring the ensemble is the rubbery John Plumpis as Scrooge. Onstage almost the entire performance, Plumpis gives Scrooge an impish charm never seen in the character before. His Scrooge loves goading Bob Cratchett, while swindling poor mothers with the utmost savoir-faire. Yet, Plumpis is also wonderful in the moments of vulnerability and tenderness that occur during Scrooge’s journey to redemption

Jeffrey C. Hawkins, equally adept physically, morphs from Cratchett to Marley’s Ghost to Fezziwig to assorted other characters with great ease. Each one is clearly delineated, down to body language, accent and vocal tone. Also showing a great deal of versatility is Claire Inie-Richards. She slides effortlessly through a laundry list of characters ranging from Fan to a hilarious Ghost of Christmas Present.

Eleni Delopoulos inhabits the rest of the female characters, including Mrs. Cratchett, Constance and Ghost of Christmas Past. Delopoulos is as gifted as her cohorts, showing tremendous range and solid comedic timing. Jonathan Silver shines as well; he brings variety and nuance to Fred, Young Scrooge, Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come and others.

Rounding things out are two wonderful puppeteers who cleverly maneuver Aaron Cromie’s wonderful puppets of Scrooge as a boy, Tiny Tim, and the other Cratchett children, to name a few. They are Betsy Rosen and Michael Boudewyns. They not only seamlessly fade into the background when operating the puppets, they also serve as sort of vaudevillian stagehands—moving needed furniture and the like off and on with almost balletic beauty and precision.

John Plumpis (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Jeffrey C. Hawkins (Bob Cratchett). Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media.

Technically, A Christmas Carol is rich with wonderful design work. Starting with Stefanie Hansen’s simple, yet elegant, warehouse-esque set, with its brick walls and arched entryways—topped off with an iron spiral staircase and catwalk—the space offers great versatility for the actors to play on and evokes Victorian London’s “mean streets” perfectly. Matthew Richards lights things effectively and produces some nifty special effects as well.

Barbara Hughes provides a plethora of Victorian costumes for the cast to utilize as the quickly switch characters—sometimes right in front of us. Sound effects and supporting music were created by Eileen T. Smithheimer; at first, I was taken aback by the choice of rock ‘n roll holiday songs for the pre-show, but given the uniqueness of this production, it works somehow. Denise O’Brien of Custom Wigs & Hair Creations has whipped up some terrific hairdos that put just the right finishing touch on the large assortment of characters. And, of course, we have the aforementioned puppets created by the gifted Aaron Cromie.

The traditional elements of Dickens’ story are present, but Barlow tells it with 21st century flair that gives the viewer a whole new take on a well-known tale. Delaware Theatre Company’s A Christmas Carol is so charming and funny.

Running Time: Two hours, including the intermission.

A Christmas Carol plays thru December 30, 2016, at Delaware Theatre Company – 200 Water Street, in Wilmington, DE. For tickets, call the box office at (302) 594-1100, or purchase them online.

Here is a video from the 2012 premiere at Delaware Theatre Company:

NOTE: Getting to DTC is pretty straightforward; they are quite close to I-95, near the Wilmington waterfront.

There is an excellent study guide that will help you to prepare your children and/or students for the show. You can access it here. The guide will help you decide if your child should attend the production.

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