Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  

Jack Volpe, Andy Jones

Photo Courtesy of the NAC. Jack Volpe and Andy Jones

A clump of sparkling white Christmas trees beckons to us at the entrance of the theatre telling us that the play has become part of the festive NAC landscape in a new way. Not just because A Christmas Carol has become a Christmas staple in Ottawa (gone are those British pantos which I loved so much) but also because this conception of Dicken’s work has a new existence, one that removes all that is dark, miserable, poor, disturbing and psychological. The event about the transformation of mean old Scrooge, the sad story of Tiny Tim and the poor Cratchit family and Scrooge’s frightening visits to his past his present and his future have been turned into a living Christmas decoration all fluffy, beautiful, seductive, dreamy, shiny, bursting with love, good feelings tinted with  the purity of pristine whiteness. Dickens meets Never Never Land!!! Visually, this production is unsurpassable. Glowing white clouds, given unlimited nuances of whiteness by Michal Walton’s magical lighting effects , reflect the tinges of blue, green and red transformed by  Bretta Gerecke’s set and costumes, as living creatures come to life in white wigs and flit around the audience just before the play begins.

These creatures  walk among us  to help us suspend our disbelief and drift easily into the imaginary  Keiley world that is about to unfold before us on the stage.  Her idea was to take us on a tactile tour of the show before it opens. One can fully understand the nature of this experience if one is relating to an audience of legally blind people and David Horak as the  legally blind narrator explained that they wanted all of us to share this experience . However, this experience could not transmit the important function of the lighting in this show and so it  shifted the performance to a show which in fact foregrounded the set, producing  a strange misunderstanding at the outset which appeared  to clarify itself only when the actors’ performances transcended the visual. The voices, the music the other senses were also put into play and those elements were addressed in a different way by the deaf actor Jack Volpé, also a narrator whose hands became extraordinary works of art in space as the actor signed his way through the evening.

We have to note the moments around the table at the Cratchit household where serious theatre raised its head and produced some moments of solid drama. Kristina Watt as Mrs. Cratchit with an impeccable cockney accent, rose above the music, gathered her whole brood around her with great strength; she is the practical voice who refuses to give way to tears as the reality of their situation closes in on the family. Nigel Shawn Williams as an extremely  moving Bob Cratchit after some slightly comic playing with a candle in the first scene in Scrooges office, shows us his true depth and goodness at the Christmas meal with the whole family concerned for Tiny Tim, and the tragedy about to strike their family. This is certainly the turning point in Scrooge’s Christmas journey as we see the set slowly dissolving into a more neutral space emptied of most of the expressionist volumes , preparing us for the final visit into a transformed present as Scrooge understands the message that Marley has sent him. Or take the moment the young Scrooge (Attila Clemann) became the rejected lover ! There was real pathos and terrible sadness in the air  as Andy Jones struck a wonderful cord. with all the humans senses.  The  sound of his voice, and the site of his distress both made us aware of the importance of this defining moment in the life of his younger self.

However, at times the fascinating sets, were partially moments of great irritation and even confusion

The first meeting between Scrooge in his expressionist room full of furniture twisted out of proportion to convey his own misery  was plunged into a strange brightness which became a white nightmare scenario , a space of conflicting emotions. He is suddenly confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley ,played by an excellent Marc Béland who showed us how his dance training assured the subtlety of his movements as he pops out of nowhere and then moves like an aristocrat around the stage.  However these fluffy white surroundings where white ghosts went flitting off in dream-like sequences, suggested encounters of the scary kind, much closer to a  pale expressionist nightmare drained of blood. Nevertheless, excellent performances set us back on the path drawn by Dickens.

There were moments of great enchantment, of excellent acting which meshed perfectly y with the spatial design. Fezziwig’s glowing white party with music and dancing, led by a joyful and well-spoken Chris Ralph with excellent musical accompaniment , was a high point. Jack Volpe, the deaf actor–narrator who taught us how to make a noiseless clap- became a magnificent sculptor in space as his fingers, hands and arms rolled and curved gracefully before him. His fascinating signed performance , interpreted verbally by Jordan Goldman, produced the most beautiful corporeal moments by an actor. He succeeded in incarnating the goodness of a human being who saw nothing but love and positive feelings in his world and thus became the living antithesis of Scrooge who, for all his money and good health, had become a most miserable human being.

There was some horrendous clowning at the moment of Scrooge’s transformation that brought actor Andy Jones back to his origins of Newfoundland comedy . At that point, It was almost as though director, Jillian Keiley , who adapted the play, lost control of the actor and was not even sure what to do with the rest of the cast , so she just let them stand there and watch as her star actor threw a laughing tantrum. For a TV audience that would be fine. But in a real theatre, where the scenography weighs heavily on the spirit of the performance, this shift became vulgar, grating and almost ruined the play. Clearly, there must have been another way to capture the transformation of Scrooge apart from this giddy Santa Claus who broke us out of the Dickens mode.!

Still , the play clearly will have a lot of popular appeal, and captures the playful spirit of Christmas at the NAC. Dickens might be shuddering in his grave, or he might be having a good stiff glass of something strong and telling Mme Keiley: “Bravo, get on with it!! “ just to celebrate her good intentions.!