Chicago Reviews

Dickens’ words are the stars of Writers Theatre’s “One-Man A Christmas Carol”

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association; photo by Joe Mazza.

Writers Theatre’s Michael Halberstam has been performing an annual reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol since the 1992 founding of the theatre. But a video of him just standing at a podium reading the text, he understood, would not truly capture the imagination when viewed online in this most bizarre of theatre seasons. Thus, Halberstam enlisted the help of director Stanton Long to transform his reading into a true streaming theatrical event, a worthy partner to Manual Cinema’s version of the show that Writers is presenting as the other half of its “Two Scrooges: A Christmas Carol Two Ways.” 

In Long’s vision, Halberstam appears on a small, sparsely decorated set in front of video monitors, whose images both flavor and complement the words he is reading to us, reflecting the story’s pensive mood. As he reads, Halberstam occasionally moves about the stage (which, for much of the production, includes a solo stool with Tiny Tim’s crutch leaning against it, as if we needed a reminder at this point of the darkness inherent in Dickens’ story) and adjusts both his voice and his focal points to portray the many different characters of the world’s best-known ghost story. (My personal favorite of his voices is the bouncy, jolly one he creates for Fezziwig.)

Of course, true to the mission statement of the theatre, it is Dickens’ words themselves that are the real star of this performance. Unlike some of the sentimental productions you might have seen, and even more than the glorious annual Goodman production that does incorporate Dickens’ narrative into its script, Writers’ focus on the story with little to no embellishment reminds us of the brilliance of the author’s use of language and brings out both his darkness and his humor more clearly.

Despite having read it several times and seen countless productions based on the novella, I found myself—against all odds—feeling almost a sense of discovery in many of the book’s most profound moments. The description of the night sky full of chained, wailing spirits after Marley’s ghost has left is particularly poignant, as is the repeated use of the word “little” to describe Bob Cratchit. And the sardonic moment in which the narrator reveals the Cratchits’ “feast” both celebrates their perseverance and condemns Bob’s employer: “There never was such a goose. Eked out by applesauce and potatoes, it was a sufficient meal for the whole family.” The goose is sufficient, and only when abetted by the equally scrawny side dishes. Still, the family revels in the meal. The author packs a lot into that tiny bit of narrative, and Halberstam and Long make sure we capture every nuance.

In many ways, this video is the opposite of the Manual Cinema version, which lovingly recreates the story in puppet form as a carefully constructed parable for our unique moment in history and couldn’t be more different from one man reading the text. Both versions, though, are extremely worthy entrants into our city’s annual Carol-fest. (I’m aware of at least five versions currently underway, and there are undoubtedly a few I haven’t heard about.) I hope that Manual and Writers consider making them available annually; they are ample proof that some theatre can actually be improved in a streaming format.

One-Man A Christmas Carol is now available for streaming online through January 3, with tickets and specific times available from Writers Theatre. The show runs approximately 70 minutes with no intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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