A Dickens of a dilemma faces theatergoers this holiday season. Which version of “A Christmas Carol” to see?
Four productions of the classic tale face off — one that’s already running, and three that start this week. Each has the same thought: God bless us, everyone (with your attendance!).
Central to each show, naturally, is miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who mends his greedy ways after ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve.
Scrooge’s life-saving makeover from Humbug! to Happy Holidays! plays out with subtle differences depending on the structure and tone of the take on Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic.
Patrick Barlow’s delightful version at St. Clement’s uses some of the same clever stagecraft that made his Tony-winning Hitchcock spy spoof “The 39 Steps” so much fun.
Special effects are low-tech but effective. You’d be amazed at how a spinning spiral staircase makes it appear that Scrooge is soaring over London with the spirits out to save his soul.
Barlow’s Ebenezer has company Tuesday, when the Summoners Ensemble Theatre’s production begins at the Merchant’s House Museum, an elegant 19th-century manse in NoHo all but made for this show, says adapter and star of the one-man production, John Kevin Jones.
“It’s the perfect setting to tell the story — a Victorian story in a real Victorian home,” he says. Adding to the atmosphere of gaslit chandeliers is the place’s spooky past. It’s known for being haunted.
On Wednesday, Brooklyn’s Smith Street Stage presents its “Christmas Carol” as a 1940s radio show. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre is one inspiration. Adapter and director Beth Ann Hopkins’ grandfather, an early radio man, is another.
“I have an obsession with sound,” she says. “You can do things in a radio play that you can’t do elsewhere.”
And the audience gets a behind-the-scenes look at how sounds effects are made. “The Creaker,” for instance, cranks out the noise of a creaking door. There’s also a machine that makes spooky wind-gust sounds.
Joining the “Carol”-ing on Thursday is a show from the experimental troupe Blessed Unrest. The company went back to Dickens’ roots for inspiration, says adapter Matt Opatrny.
The Blessed Unrest troupe’s adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” with Tatyana Kot and Damen Scranton, returns to the story’s original intent as a critique of the socioeconomic system of the time.
“In 1843, Charles Dickens planned to publish a political pamphlet entitled ‘An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,’ but instead wrote ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” he says.
Opatrny’s adaptation returns to the story’s original intent as an examination of an unjust socioeconomic system that benefits a few at the top while the masses struggle to meet their basic needs. The idea speaks directly to today’s 1%.
“Dickens wrote a story that is about much more than one mean old rich guy,” says Opatrny. “He was shedding light on a system that left common people desperately struggling, while the powerful were blissfully ignorant.”
“I am fascinated by what made Scrooge the way he is, why he’s choosing to isolate himself and whether he is capable of radical change,” Opatrny says. “And if the people around him will accept his efforts to connect.
“I am obsessed with Scrooge’s isolation, and the effect that it has,” he continues. “If we are cut off from and not acknowledged by others, we can lose our compassion. I think the fact of one very small step toward a simple friendship at the end is important.”
Essential to all four productions are multitasking actors, a concept that goes beyond the bottom line and keeping cast costs down. “It is economical, but I think we’d choose to have seven or so actors even if we could easily afford 35 or 40,” says Hopkins. “Working in this way is simply more accurate to what would have been done for radio plays during that time.
“There’s a charm and a kind of intimacy that you wouldn’t get if you had 40 actors playing 40 roles,” she continues. “I think there’s also a pleasure for the audience in witnessing the actors transform before their eyes.”
And another part of the fun for theatergoers will be choosing which Scrooge suits them best.
Creating the eerie voice of the ghost of Jacob Marley in the Smith Street Stage production of “A Christmas Carol” are (l.-r.) Jonathan Hopkins, Vinnie Penna and Corey Whelihan.
Which “Carol” is the one for you? This quick guide tells you the tune of four rival productions.
* PATRICK BARLOW
Cast & concept: Five actors, most who double as musicians, play nearly three dozen roles. Accents and costumes change quicker than you can say “Decrease the surplus population.”
Tone: Cheeky humor mixed with plenty of soul.
Stage magic: A toss of white confetti makes a tiny snow flurry. A puppet Tiny Tim steals the show and your heart.
Catch it: Through Jan. 4; Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. Tickets: $ 75; (212) 239-6200.
* SUMMONER S ENSEMBLE THEATRE
Cast & concept: 20 characters, 1 actor, 1 hour
Tone: Warm-hearted sincerity.
Stage magic: There’s one prop — Dickens’ book. John Kevin Jones uses his vibrant and elastic voice and body language to play men and women, young and old.
John Kevin Jones adapts and stars in a one-man version of “A Christmas Carol” at the Merchant’s House Museum.
Catch it: Dec. 3-17; Merchant’s House Museum, 29 E. Fourth St. $ 37.50; (800) 838-3006.
* SMITH STREET STAGE
Cast & concept: Seven characters share microphones and play 34 characters in this Dickens radio play.
Tone: 1940s nostalgic.
Stage magic: Three actors speak at once to create an eerie vocal shimmer for the voice of the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s late business partner.
Catch it: Dec. 4-15; Robert Acito Park House, Court and President Sts., Brooklyn. $ 15; (800) 838-3006.
* BLESSED UNREST
Cast & concept: Six actors play 37 characters.
Tone: Hopeful but dark — a doomed Scrooge encounters rats.
Stage magic: A piece of fabric becomes a swing, a parrot and a baby. A door becomes a staircase, a bed and a dining table.
Catch it: Dec. 5-22; Interart Theatre, 500 W. 52nd St. $ 18; blessedunrest.org .