Given the inevitable frequency with which productions of A Christmas Carol crop up each holiday season, it’s surprising to see what a few masks can do to liven up an overly familiar story.
It’s no surprise that Faction of Fools’ take on the Dickens classic would contain the traditional commedia dell’arte masks that figure into all of the company’s productions. But this production also features some gigantic, caricature-style heads (designed by Tara Cariaso and Aaron Elson of Waxing Moon Masks) that draw even greater attention to the characters donning them. That includes an adorable but pitiable Tiny Tim (Michael Sprouse), a wistful young Fan, Scrooge’s sister (Julie Garner), and an ebullient Ghost of Christmas Present (Toby Mulford). These exaggerated masks have a tinge of creepiness to them, but really help in lending an artistic footprint to director Matthew R. Wilson’s production.
And that’s important, given the slew of takes on A Christmas Carol that appear on area stages each December. This one has a streamlined story, clocking in at 90 minutes without intermission, and a snappy script (also adapted by Wilson) with modern asides, the occasional pun, and even some audience interaction (though it proved slightly challenging to rouse participation during Sunday’s matinee). It’s interesting to see how the commedia style intersects with a classic tale such as this one. Scrooge (Paul Reisman) becomes more of a comically frightening villain; his nephew, Fred (Tyler Herman), dances and clicks his heels through life (Herman’s interpretation of his character feels the most exaggerated), and Mrs. Cratchit (Garner again) is a Cockney housewife lending comic relief to her scenes. The poor, suffering Cratchits have it particularly bad in this version—horseflies on the table for Christmas dinner—but the family approaches their lot with smiles and whimsy.
Though the general tone of this A Christmas Carol is pretty jubilant, things do go appropriately dark when the chilling Ghost of Christmas Future (Joel David Santner and Sandra Mae Frank) appears. Floating along with piercing red eyes, he provides the most disquieting scenes of the production’s vignettes. Wilson employs shaky, black-and-white multimedia effects to show shadowy video of Scrooge’s funeral to the miser (Scrooge realizes it’s his own funeral from the start, which does take some dramatic weight away from the later revelation of his grave). The eerie scene is a good springboard into Scrooge’s transition into a more lighthearted, generous man. In a season where audiences will likely be choosing among adaptations of the beloved story, Faction of Fools has delivered a take with some surprises, and with an aesthetic that feels all its own.
A Commedia Christmas Carol runs through December 23 at Elstad Auditorium at Gallaudet University. Running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($25) are available via the company’s website.