One-man 'Carol' is Dickens revisited

December 13, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Stage versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol come in all shapes and sizes. On the large-scale end, there's the extravaganza at Madison Square Garden (which has just announced that this year, it's 10th, will be its last). On the small-scale end, there are one-man versions, such as the one adapted and performed by Patrick Stewart (admittedly, a large-scale talent).

In keeping with the more modest approach, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival is premiering its own one-man rendition, adapted by local playwright Kimberley Lynne and starring the festival's artistic director, James Kinstle.

But while the show's scale may be small, Lynne's ambitions are not. Instead of merely dramatizing Dickens' novella, she interweaves the tale of Scrooge's redemption with Dickens' biography. And despite some confusing moments that could be smoothed over with a little more dramaturgy, her effort works well on several levels.

For starters, it makes perfect sense to have Dickens reciting A Christmas Carol. Not only did the author actually do public readings of the piece in real life, but as Lynne's program notes point out, he often acted out portions of his books while he was writing them.

It's this creative process that Lynne depicts, beginning with Dickens awaking from a dream that spurs A Christmas Carol and continuing through to Tiny Tim's famous last line.

As Dickens creates the characters on paper, Kinstle, under the direction of Kathy Feininger, portrays them. It's a task the game actor attacks with relish, whether depicting bent-over, cantankerous Scrooge; or the skinflint's buoyant nephew, Fred; or the three ghosts who haunt Scrooge (their voices echo-enhanced and their presence presaged by the onstage organ accompaniment of Simon Zaleski).

Lynne's script also allows Kinstle to portray members of Dickens' family, adding another level to the interweaving of Dickens' life with his writing. This works best in terms of Dickens' father. A man who was imprisoned for debt and forced 12-year-old Charles to work in a warehouse, John Dickens is a stern presence that haunts the writer as ominously as the ghostly trio haunts Scrooge (a comparison reinforced by giving the father's voice a similar echo effect).

In other places, biographical details and the Christmas Carol plot do not merge so seamlessly. One overt example is Dickens' relationship with his adored, deceased young sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. Though Lynne supplies enough information for the references to make sense, connecting Mary with the characters Lynne focuses on in A Christmas Carol is a stretch. Far more problematic are the tossed-in references to Dickens' close friend, Forster, which are apt to baffle most theatergoers.

But there's only one truly significant area in which Lynne's well-researched text strains credibility. Just as Scrooge is a new man in the end, so does Lynne perform the same service for Dickens, who develops new-found warmth for the wife and children he has previously treated like servants.

Not only does there appear to be little factual justification for Dickens' sudden transformation, but it adds an extra dose of sugar to the already treacly Christmas Carol. Then again, no one enjoyed an uplifting ending more than Dickens, and it's a holiday treat in itself to watch versatile Kinstle work his way through some two-dozen characters in less than two hours.

A Dickens of a Carol

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 28

Where: Baltimore Shakespeare Festival at St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave.

Tickets: $20

Call: 877-639-3728

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