One of my family’s most cherished traditions this time of year has been to visit family down south (of course), but also to stop off in Staunton, Virginia, for a few days. It is a great time of year to grab some lunch made with local, organically grown produce at The Store, maybe some ice cream at the Split Banana, but especially to catch the holiday repertory at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Theatre.
These days it’s a little different — ASC was among the first companies to try a return to the stage earlier this year; with the theater now dark on orders from Governor Northam, the good news is that the Blackfriars company, undaunted, continues to experiment with various venues for streaming video during this winter season.
This year’s production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is different, featuring a pared-down company, to be sure, but with the enduring passion and inventiveness that has made the Blackfriars one of our area’s most beloved homes-away-from-home. We are reminded how the lights-up, fully-engaged audience experience has enchanted us for years, and what we can look forward to enjoying once again in person, once the virus has passed.
The production is led by John Harrell, one of the company’s founding members, as Scrooge. Harrell’s physical transformations are especially enjoyable to watch, beginning as he does with the crotchety, creeping-like-snail Ebenezer on his lonely way to work; his visit to Christmases past, in particular, give Harrell the opportunity to show Scrooge remembering, physically, discreetly, the dance moves that his younger self used to delight in. It’s with a hint of reluctance that he recovers his dignity, but having given us this unspoken glimpse of Scrooge’s better side, we can see how things will end.
Madeline Calais is all grace and charm as Christmas Past, and as Tiny Tim, born on the back of Brandon Carter’s Bob Cratchit (a solid turn in this pivotal role). Jessika D. Williams offers us the more sobering parts of the show, embodying Jacob Marley and a wary, up-to-our-moment Christmas Present, whose dour aspect reflects a good bit more than the world of the play.
As always, the acoustic musical offerings are a fascinating blend of the old and new; the extended pre-show here features everything from Macklemore and Dan Caplen’s “It’s Christmas Time” to Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” ending with Chuck Berry’s bouncy “Run, Rudolph Run.” And for those who prefer their Christmas carols from the old book, the show itself is interspersed generously with gorgeous harmonies and fine voices for everything from “Wexford Carol” to “Carol of the Bells.” ASC regular Chris Johnston has arranged the music nicely as always, and his banjo picking is as inventive as ever — with the joyful addition of Elleon Dobias, whose fine fiddle work brings the lights up in more ways than one.
ASC’s current offering of A Christmas Carol is a beautiful winter rose, with edgy, contemporary moments, and bristling with energy. As they continue to innovate and reach out to new audiences, while holding tight to its traditional ones, ASC has screened this production at the Hull Drive-In, in Lexington, Virginia, with additional showings at movie theaters in Staunton during Christmas week.
True, the virus has kept us largely at home, but as we look ahead to a new year of eventual liberation from COVID, there are signs that the passion, creativity, and joy of theater lives on and will soon come back to its full bloom.
Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes, including pre-show medley and brief intermission.
For more information about the American Shakespeare Center and its mission, visit americanshakespearecenter.com.