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The Rousuck Review: "A Christmas Carol"

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Teresa Castracane
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Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews “A Christmas Carol,” which  continues at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company through December 23.

The Rousuck review of " A Christmas Carol" at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company:
Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” set in 1840s Baltimore -- a clever idea. The Baltimore references start with the opening speech.

The death certificate for Scrooge’s partner, Marley, was signed by the Baltimore City Clerk. Scrooge and Marley’s business is on the corner of Calvert and German Streets. If you know that German Street is now Redwood, you’ll realize this is the location of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, which has produced this brand-new version of Dickens’ classic.

The men asking Scrooge for alms for the poor are architect Robert Cary Long and the future, controversial Baltimore mayor, George William Brown.

So, does a famous mid-19th century Baltimore businessman serve as Scrooge? Enoch Pratt, perhaps? Johns Hopkins? No, far too civic-minded and philanthropic.

Ah, maybe John Work Garrett – president of the B&O Railroad. Nope. In director Ian Gallanar’s adaptation Scrooge is just Scrooge -- the character Dickens created. The Baltimore references are more a matter of tinsel on the tree than the tree itself.

The references give a sense of place – Scrooge lives on St. Paul Street; his clerk, Bob Cratchit, lives on Shakespeare Street in Fells Point. The actors who alternate as narrators fill in more details -- particularly when Scrooge is escorted on tours of his past, present and future by the ghosts who haunt him Christmas eve.

But aside from snippets of local color, Gallanar’s production doesn’t deepen our knowledge of 1840s Baltimore or of Dickens’ most famous work. 

Part of the problem is that -- at least at the final preview I attended – Gregory Burgess portrays Scrooge with more bluster than insight. He bellows with outrage at the start of the play; he bellows with glee after he sees the light at the end of the play.

Truth is, Burgess’ Scrooge never seems truly mean-spirited. In his jaunty knitted nightcap, he’s almost adorable. His eventual change of heart -- like the production’s Baltimore trappings -- feels more external than internal.

There are other difficulties. The blocking suggests that Chesapeake Shakespeare is not yet fully acclimated to its beautiful new facility. Especially in the center section where I sat, theatergoers are often looking at actors’ backs. 

And some of this adaptation’s language is too modern. A poultry butcher is called “the chicken guy,” and at one point Scrooge says, “You’ve lost me there” to Daniel Flint’s fine Ghost of Christmas Present.  

Laura Rocklyn is lovely as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Her white gown suggests the bride Scrooge might have married if he hadn’t traded love for greed. Molly Moores as Bob Cratchit’s devoted wife and Tim R. Bintrim as jolly Fezziwig are also notable. 
But despite incorporating lots of Christmas music, Chesapeake Shakespeare’s “Christmas Carol” is unlikely to strike a powerful chord with fans of Baltimore or Dickens. The theater company hopes this adaptation will become a holiday tradition. I’m not going to give it a “bah humbug!” Instead, I’ll consider this an early draft with more work to be done.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck   

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.