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Inside the holiday show at the Merchant's House
No matter how well you know A Christmas Carol, it will almost certainly seem different at the Merchant's House. (It's playing there for the seventh consecutive year, from November 29 to January 5.)
A museum on East 4th Street that was once the home of a 19th-century businessman named Seabury Tredwell, the Merchant's House is essentially a time machine. It's filled with the Tredwell family's actual furniture and knickknacks, and even in busy Manhattan, it creates a reflective calm from the moment you step inside.
So when John Kevin Jones, dressed in a frock coat and jaunty cravat, steps into the parlor, he seems to emerge from the house's own history. And when he begins his one-man version of A Christmas Carol, standing before the 40-person audience that is clustered on wooden folding chairs, his story crackles with unfamiliar energy. Even though we know what's going to happen to Scrooge and Cratchit and Tiny Tim, there's something fresh, something vivid about hearing their tale in a room that Charles Dickens might have visited.
It helps, too, that Jones's entire script is taken from the amended text that Dickens himself read to audiences. That means we get details that are cut from Mickey's Christmas Carol or the production we might have seen at a local theatre. We get a rich (and eerie) description of Marley's chains being dragged up the stairs to Scrooge's bedroom. We meet the specters of Ignorance and Want that cling to the Ghost of Christmas Present. We learn more about Bob Cratchit's witty, wonderful wife.
Jones and his director Rhonda Dodd (who adapted the script with him) intentionally added these overlooked details into their production. "I didn't want it to be just a perfunctory A Christmas Carol performance," Jones says. "It really needed to be something that was special and spoke to people. And going back and adding those things, I feel, really did make the difference."
In refocusing our attention on a tale we know so well, Jones hopes to remind us how moving A Christmas Carol can be.
To that end, he appreciates the intimacy of performing at the Merchant's House. "The close proximity to the audience really does make a big difference," he says. "And being on the same plane as they are, the same physical plane, also helps, because then I'm talking across to them and not down to them. Because this piece could be very preachy: 'This is who you should be. This is what you should do.' And that's not what I'm trying to say. I'm trying to say, 'We should do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.'"
He embodies the spirit of fellowship by chatting with patrons before and after the show. "That was always part of our plan, for me to be available," he says. "I felt like it was important to the themes of the piece. In the Fezziwig sequence, the narrator says, 'When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up, and Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side the door, and shaking hands with each person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas.'
"That is so important! That is so much a part of what this is all about, and if I don't follow that example, then I haven't learned anything. And since I said that, what this show has taught me about myself and what it has made me examine about my own actions and my own occasional Scrooginess has really made a difference in how I see the world."
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2016 but has been updated for 2018. As of press time, full-price tickets are currently available, but the production always sells out, so act quickly!
Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Joey Stocks. Top photo: John Kevin Jones.
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