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Have You Really Heard The Stories in "A Christmas Carol?" Patrick Barlow finds rich texture in the holiday classic

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

From a certain angle, A Christmas Carol is a story about storytelling. After all, the ghosts make Scrooge listen to stories about his own life and the lives of the people around him, and when he finally wakes up on Christmas morning, he's relieved he can rewrite the tales that upset him most. As a changed man, he wants to create new stories that people can tell about him after he's gone.

This aspect of the Charles Dickens classic is the driving force behind playwright Patrick Barlow's new adaptation, which is playing through early January at Theatre at St. Clements. The entire show is performed by five actors, most of whom play multiple roles. Every time they switch characters, we're reminded that we're watching a live story unfolding in front of us. Certain characters, like Tiny Tim, are even portrayed by puppets, which only underscores the fact that A Christmas Carol is a fantastical tale, not a slice of life.

Plus, Barlow's script ends with a revelation that makes Scrooge himself realize he's in a play. It would be unfair to spoil what happens, but suffice it to say that in this production, it's actually quite liberating to realize we're in a theatre and that most of us understand our lives as dramas in which we're the main characters.

For Barlow, this is familiar ground. His best-known work, a Tony Award-winning adaptation of The 39 Steps, also highlights the nature of the theatre, since it has four actors create an entire world with simple props and various accents. "I use the theatre as a metaphor in nearly every play I write," he says. "It actually makes me laugh when I see a play that ignores the fact that there's an audience watching. Why not acknowledge there's a story? This is my own opinion, of course, but stories are what can guide our lives."

He admires the structure of A Christmas Carol because it doesn't let Scrooge listen idly to yarns from his past. "Dickens has created stories that Scrooge has to re-experience, which is brilliant," Barlow says. "There's no point in giving somebody orders. You have to give somebody experiences, like a therapist. You have to get them into the past---let's revisit this moment with your father or this woman you loved---and when you experience those things again, maybe something will happen that will make you change."

With that, he points to one of his most obvious additions to the original material: "Scrooge starts seeing the ghosts' lessons as scenes. 'Oh, this scene is completely pointless.' He keeps saying that these moments don't serve any purpose and we don't need to see them."

At first, this creates comedy, as Scrooge (Peter Bradbury) and the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present (Franca Vercelloni and Jessie Shelton, respectively) bicker back and forth. Eventually, though, something richer rises from Scrooge's resistance. "The stories he says are useless are actually the ones that matter too much," Barlow explains. "He doesn't want to look at them, but they're the ones he can actually use. The ghosts know what they're doing, and the thing is whether or not Scrooge will pick up the message."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photo by Joan Marcus