2016, it has been said, has been a pretty garbage year. The division between Americans is greater than ever in living memory, the incoming president’s speeches resemble a series of Cards Against Humanity jokes strung together, intolerance is at the forefront of global conversation, and each week a living legend lives no longer. Here we are, nearing the end (beginning?) or our long, international nightmare; and now, like a ‘too-soon’ joke at a funeral, the Christmas season is upon us.
Put simply, this is a uniquely difficult time to put on a holiday show,particularly if you have something potentially impactful to say. As luck has it, it just so happens that Charles Dickens, who himself forced one class to engage with another, already wrote a pretty perfect Christmas-themed response to societal division, and he did so with wit and a warm heart.
Enter the Steel City Shakespeare Center’s production of A Christmas Carol. This show is breezy, lighthearted, and – this is essential – for everyone: “Since producing A Christmas Carol the first time last year, the world seems to have become a more complicated place,” writes Jeffrey Chips, founder of SCSC and director of the production. “As we gather to experience this stripped-down retelling of a story we truly love to tell, let us remember…that we are more alike than different.”
This director’s note written in the show’s playbill is the production’s exclusive moment of sobriety. SCSC’s Carol is the kind of show that, in the most honest sense, is just happy to be there. A narrated visual retelling of Dickens’ book, the production uses 4 lightly costumed performers (Jessica Schiermeister, Michael Mykita, Tonya Lynn and Jeffrey Chips), each of whom bounce between roles and narration duties. Originally performed at the historic Heathside Cottage, the actors would gently lead the audience from room to room as each new ghost was introduced, as if it were the world’s friendliest haunted house.
What the show lacks in production values it compensates for with raw spirit, and the play has a pleasant sandbox quality to it. Actors makes use of a variety of toys and simple props breathe life into the production – a toy train whistle is memorably used to introduce the first ghost. Audience participation is encouraged, but not required, and the performers are careful not to impede the flow of the play to keep the show succinct and with energy.
Chips and the cast clearly want their show to be fun, friendly and engaging, and there’s something to be said for the ‘we’re going to have fun doing this and you should too’ mentality of storytelling. As such, SCSC’s production will best serve families and larger groups of audience members. If there is an Achilles Heel to the show, it’s that a present, actively engaged audience is paramount to its success. This is not a show that exists easily in a vacuum, and a limited turnout can kneecap the experience.
SCSC’s A Christmas Carol is a playful production of an old classic, and its earnest ‘come one, come all!’ vibe makes it feel like community theater comfort food. It was Dickens’ goal in writing A Christmas Carol to connect a desperate lower class with its more affluent brethren, and to instill empathy in a society that lacked it. SCSC’s production, then, is like a friendly neighbor offering kind words during a difficult time. The scale is different, but the sentiment is all the same.
Special thanks to the Steel City Shakespeare Center for complimentary press tickets. Unfortunately A Christmas Carol has already closed but stay tuned for more from Jeffrey Chips and the gang. For more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Steel City Shakespeare Center.