Theater Review: “A Commedia Christmas Carol” at Gallaudet University

Faction of Fools delivers an inventive new spin on the seasonal chestnut.
Paul Reisman and Toby Mulford in A Commedia Christmas Carol. Photograph by Second Glance Photography.
Paul Reisman and Toby Mulford in A Commedia Christmas Carol. Photograph by Second Glance Photography.

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.

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