My weekend has been dominated by children, their thoughts, and my thoughts about them. Charles Dickens, a passionate admirer of little ones, finds his most searing location for them in his beloved A Christmas Carol. Even the death of Little Dorrit lacks the resonance that this short novella has shown. The attachment with Christmas is clearly one reason, but the theatrical bent of the writing, reflecting Dickens’ passionate interest in acting, begs for a physical realization. Version after version has hardened us to the difficulty of undertaking such a task. Prose on the page is very different from words on the stage. Dickens cushions speech in each of his novels with plenty of before and after richness, passionate in its empathy for their plight. At the Theatre Institute at Sage in Troy, I saw in David Bunce’s direction a good understanding of how to make the novella work on the stage. It was clear, it was sharp. Carols, beautifully sung, were deftly intertwined in and around the stage action, very like the way that Dickens, the novelist, frames the words of his characters. The acting was unpretentious, the storyline without excess or unnecessaries. Ron Komora did not exaggerate as Scrooge. From the beginning he seemed a good listener. Maddie Morrell as Belle, Scrooge’s erstwhile fiancé, was the sharpest presence on stage- a beautiful and compelling voice she had, a delivery which combined energy and acceptance. All in all, this was an honest, well-performed show, beautifully costumed and without affectation. One got the familiar story directly.
The devil is in the details, they say, but in Capital Rep’s The Secret Garden, heaven was in the details. I came away from the show thinking of any number of small touches, subtle phrases, and subtle singing that glitter in my memory. This was a “muso” thing—the actors singing, playing instruments, and speaking, often at the same time. Yes, it’s a gimmick, and it is getting a little tired, but not in this production. A constant web of enchantment held one from the very first note as beautiful touch after beautiful touch became a whole. It was held together with passion, not labor. Something new was always coming at you. It was not given enough time to be sentimental. There were strong performances: Fred Rose’s intense singing as Neville Craven; in the role of Martha, Leenya Rideout’s great song “Hold On”, perfectly controlled so that the final notes rang out as a triumph; Mollie Vogt-Welch (Lily) and her exquisite high warm voice melted the heart. The two children, Colin and Mary, played by Aidan Fecko and Brittany Ross, though years apart in age, were natural and convincing. Alexander Jones as Albert Lennox sang with exceptional clarity.
Too sugary? Not in this production. How did they do that? They kept it going. It had an irresistable pace. It had some terror—the Indian dance in particular. Lily’s music was not sung sentimentally, but simply and directly. Best of all, Cole Burden as Archibald Craven made the words in his songs speak. From him we heard a natural speech that became singing. We heard the inside of this thoughts, not the outside of his voice. One has to make an effort to believe to hear this show truly. The performance helps us, but we have to go some of the way. I thought to myself, may it all be true…can it all be true? This show got to me, and I am thinking maybe, just maybe. I’ve been singing Sondheim’s great “Children and Art” lately. It tells us in its quiet, nearly silent way, that art is what we have. Children and art. Capital Rep’s Secret Garden had both of these.
Yet one more act of faith—the venerable Miracle on 34th Street, given by the Dorset Players. At last a Kris Kringle I could believe in. He wasn’t jolly; he didn’t overdo the “ho, ho, ho.” He convinced me he was very St. Nick. Simply (this is not so simple) by being a good and kind human being. This story redoubles the demand made on our imagination. We are listening to a fiction about a person who says he is not a fiction, when in fact he is—he is an actor. But this after all, this is what it is all about, as the play says: Believing. He was well-supported by local actors, and there were excellent contributions from a variety of children. We left happier and well-pleased, encouraged to believe in things which made no common sense.
My most elegant and true experience of faith personified came to me watching these productions. It was at a Tanglewood concert, in the Finale of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony. During a long pause built into the movement by the composer, that fine conductor James Conlon put down his hands, the players rested for what seemed an eternity, and then, without direction, took up their instruments and played again in perfect unison. This moment had all the characteristics of real faith: stopping, listening through the silence, not rushing it, hearing what was not yet there, and willing it to be there. This is what the stories of Christmas demand of us.
Happy Holidays to you, dear Reader.