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Try to Keep It All the Year: Trinity Rep’s “A Christmas Carol”

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,’ returned the nephew. ‘Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

While it’s not uncommon to use a quote to kick off a review, I’m probably not supposed to use a quote that large. I did it anyway, because it’s not only my favorite quote from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but it’s also one of my favorite lines in literature, and the one most likely to choke me up no matter what time of year it is.

It’s spoken by Fred, the nephew of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a miser who spends the day before Christmas terrorizing his employee, Bob, dismissing his beleaguered nephew, and mocking those collecting money for the poor.

“If they would rather die, . . . They had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Reading that is almost like listening to C-SPAN, isn’t it?

The most famous Christmas story of all time, aside from the Nativity, also happens to be the most popular, go-to holiday programming for seemingly every theater in the country. Annual productions are usually a great way to bank some money, and a way for directors and adapters to play around with a story audiences know well enough to allow for some artistic interpretation.

This year, that interpretation comes with the added challenge of taking the magic of Dickens and putting it on televisions and laptops. For many people, this might be the first digital production they’ve agreed to sit though since the pandemic began, and while all audiences these days have dwindling attention spans, you can see how it might be difficult to convince the kids to sit and watch a streaming version of something that has a hundred other purely cinematic versions–including one with Muppets.

(Or as I call that film, “the definitive Christmas Carol.”)

So rejoice, because Trinity has stuck the landing.

A series of smart directorial choices, and a bevy of enchanting performances, has made this Christmas Carol one you won’t want to miss, and the best part is, it’s free.

Taking the story to film seems to have opened up the creativity of Trinity’s team, including some absolutely gorgeous animation from Michael Guy, when Scrooge is spirited into a book by the always-beguiling Rebecca Gibel as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Gibel and Rachael Warren pop up throughout the play in various roles, and the two of them were playing off each other so well, I completely forgot they were filming from separate locations.

Filming actors from various places, including their homes, a cemetery, and the streets of Providence, is just one hurdle the production had to clear. Director Curt Columbus and director of photography Albert Genao had a lot of plates to spin with this one, and they’ve knocked it out of the park.

This Christmas Carol manages to be many things all at once: a love letter to Providence, a celebration of family and community, a welcome opportunity to let us take a far-too-brief look back into a performance space none of us have seen for months, and an entertaining hour of holiday fun that balances fine-tuned videography with that special brand of unique theatrical energy that sometimes reads as too much  when a camera is aimed at it, but attached to this story seems more than appropriate.

Joe Wilson Jr. is a marvelous Scrooge, who adjusts beautifully to each new medium we see the character in — whether it be standing among the stunning set and props from S. Michael Getz — or on a Facetime call with Fred, played with just the right amount of hope and subtlety by Rodney Witherspoon. There are so many ways to play Scrooge, and a wise actor won’t ask how their Scrooge can be different, but what kind of Scrooge the moment requires, and it struck me that this Scrooge seemed more withdrawn than anything else. Instead of just bluster and snarkiness, we see the pain in him right from the beginning. He’s left the world, and so it makes his return to it in the finale that much more cathartic.

Daniel Duque-Estrada does double duty as a kind of mad scientist narrator leading us through the interactive portions of the show (get your bells ready), and the Ghost of Christmas Present. His interim pieces between scenes reminded me of the videos you see before you step onto a ride at an amusement park, and while that may sound like a dig, it’s actually perfect for keeping the energy aloft throughout the show. It doesn’t hurt that Duque-Estrada commits to it fully, and it just feels fantastic to see actors we know can play serious get to be silly for a bit.

One of the most striking moments of the play is the appearance of Stephen Thorne as Marley, standing right outside the Providence Public Library. There’s always the question of how scary you actually want A Christmas Carol to be since it can run the gamut from “mildly spooky” to Scrooged, but I found the scene where Marley visits Scrooge to be exceptionally filmed, edited and performed.

As Bob Crachit, Taavon Gamble is endearing early on, alongside his equally charming family played by Adam Crowe as his husband Sam, and Tiny Tim, played by the lovely Evelyn Marote. Gamble’s performance eventually turns heartbreaking when Scrooge gets a vision of not just his future, but the futures of those he impacts.

It’s a good reminder that it’s not just about how we, ourselves, change, but how we change those around us.

While theater requires attention to detail, anything on film has its detail magnified by 10. So you’ll be relieved to know Trinity has all its bases covered. The quality is stellar, the costumes by Amanda Downing Carney are exquisite, the music by Michael Rice and the sound design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz are both eerie and evocative, and the lighting by Steve McLellan has that perfect theater glow to it that we all can’t wait to see again live.

When done well, A Christmas Carol is a story you should take something new from each time you see it, but it’s understandable that the proliferation of it in culture has made us numb to its message. We see it because seeing it is tradition, but it becomes just one more thing to check off our holiday activity list as we careen towards the 25th.

This year, I hope when you put on Trinity’s A Christmas Carol, you do your best to sit and experience the show the same way you would in a theater. Phones off, eyes forward, open to letting a little magic into your life.

With this year being what it was, it’s okay if you haven’t felt like finding something to cherish yet, but this Christmas Carol might just be that thing.

And the good news is–

You haven’t missed it.

Trinity Rep’s A Christmas Carol streams for free now through January 10. For tickets, go to https://www.trinityrep.com/buy-tickets/

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