Charles Dickens would applaud novel productions of his classic, “A Christmas Carol,” performed by two of the region’s most creative and talented theatre troupes this holiday season.
Arlington’s creative Synetic Theater is doing the play with its signature fusion of drama, music and dance, and the District’s distinguished Arena Stage modifies the title to “Christmas Carol 1941,” a world premiere adaptation by James Magruder, and offers a poignant, historically relevant twist.
A third production, the annual rendering at Ford’s Theatre, opens on Dec. 6.
This may be the year to modify the usual holiday regimen of “Christmas Carol,” “Nutcracker” and Handel’s “Messiah” to accommodate an extra helping, or even two, of the Dickens offering.
For as many times as this writer has seen “A Christmas Carol” on stage, it is always interesting to see how creative producers, set and costume designers and actors invent some unique stamp while keeping the integrity of the story line. The play itself, of course, played a major role in the huge cultural shift about how Christmas was celebrated with its introduction as a short story in 1843.
With the new royal family in England promoting the Christmas tree, the story helped transform the holiday into a celebration of charity and good will.
For the Synetic Theatre and Arena Stage productions this season, the special imprint of each is entirely in character with what they’re both best known for.
The Synetic Theatre in its five years has won Helen Hayes awards for its ability to evoke emotions and intentions behind words with musically-intense and modern dance-like renderings of famous plays without benefit of any words spoken, at all. They’ve done “Hamlet,” and earlier this year, “Macbeth.” They have “Romeo and Juliet” coming up in the spring.
The Arena Stage often opts for historically-rooted drama, many going back to the first half of the last century, including the unforgettable “All My Sons,” their “Cabaret,” “Shakespeare in Hollywood,” “Eleanor, Her Secret Journey,” and others. Its choosing to drop the Dickens drama into the real world of Christmas 1941, two and a half weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, is classic Arena. So is situating the story in Washington, D.C.
I would (and may) go see either or both again in a heartbeat. I would be hard-pressed to choose one over the other, so I’d probably leave the decision to my guest after providing a brief description of each. I suppose if you’re more into the horror and thriller genre, you might prefer the Synetic version, and if you are more of a history buff, you’d enjoy the Arena’s.
Both Ebenezer Scrooge characters are excellent. Georgian-born actor Irakli Kavsadze does the Synetic Scrooge replete with the distinctive accent of his homeland in the Caucusus. The Scrooge character goes by Elijah Strube in the Arena Stage adaptation, and is played deftly by James Gale.
A special “shout out” to former Helen Hayes Award recipient Nancy Robinette as Margarette at the Arena Stage, if only as a tip of the hat for her recent standout performance as Florence Foster Jenkins in the Studio Theatre’s “Souvenir.”
Over at the Synetic, I wouldn’t think to overlook Falls Church’s own ubiquitous Miles Butler, a sophomore at George Mason High School. Young Miles is one of the six performers, other than Kavsadze, who share all the remaining roles and special effects requiring remarkable energy, coordination and talent. He just came off “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Studio Theatre, which marked his most important role yet and has already rung up an adult-scale list of theater credits at most of the major venues in the region. He’s done his two major roles this fall while being an honor student and leading the George Mason High cross country team, to boot.
In the Synetic “Christmas Carol,” the use of lighting, loud and ominous music and fluid dance or mime-like movement create the perfect setting and mood for some really scary ghosts, beginning with Marley and followed by the ghosts of past, present and future. It is in the area of ghostly presentation where most productions of this drama try to show off special creativity, but I have never seen them carried out in such a downright frightening way as Synetic does it.
I would think twice about taking a nightmare prone young child to experience such an immersion in terror. But it is really the production’s strength.
When Scrooge, who is played appropriately cruel by Kavsadze, wakes up after encountering these types of ghosts and an especially macabre vision of his future in a graveyard of rattling tombstones, he is not just relieved and happy. He is downright giddy.
At the Arena Stage, Gale’s Elijah Strube is a bit more reserved in his demeanor, even capable of some almost-endearing wit. His evil is as a purveyor of “buying low and selling high” on the commodities markets, adding incredibly to the suffering of average Americans during the Great Depression.
This role unfolds through the production’s attention to historic detail, a lot centered around the futility of and scarcity facing the Depression-afflicted working and farming families, contrasted to the cruel and insensitive “free market” pronouncements of Strube.
The ghost of Christmas future in this one shows Strube the horrors of the impending World War II, including the loss on the battlefield of his nephew, and the role Strube played in price-fixing and other schemes to profit from the carnage.
The Synetic production is done without an intermission, and the Arena Stage’s has one. This is the final production at the Arena Stage facility prior to its major renovation. Upcoming productions, including Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and “A View From the Bridge” in the spring, will be held in Crystal City until the makeover is complete.