When Victorian era author Charles Dickens arrived in Boston for his first public reading of A Christmas Carol, the line for tickets outside of his American publisher’s office was half a mile long. When he ventured further north to New York, the lines were even longer. In fact, on the night before his first NYC reading at the 2,500 seater Steinway Hall, thousands sat or slept on blankets in freezing temperatures, hoping for a $2 ticket. The next day, once all four performances were sold out, scalpers upped the price to $26. To give things perspective, considering that at the time the average pay for a New York laborer was a dollar a day, the popularity of Dickens and his work remains staggering. Think about it. In the nineteenth century, at the height of his popularity, Charles Dickens was a rock star.
Interestingly, even if the crowds loved him and the way he breathed life into his various characters, critics were not altogether impressed. With a length of almost three hours, plus a five minute intermission, Dickens, reading from his edited prompt book, grounded behind his podium, was considered monotonous. He may have loved theatre, and even occasionally performed on the stage, but despite his passion for treading the boards, reviewers considered him no actor.
On the other hand, local talent Katie McFadzen may not enjoy the fanatical following of Dickens, and you won’t find scalpers near the Childsplay box-office upping the ticket sale to thirteen times the original price, but beyond a doubt, after delighting in her solo presentation of A Christmas Carol at Friday night’s Tempe Center for the Arts opening, the last word that springs to mind would be monotonous. After ninety minutes of continuous narration and energetic movement, and with neither a prompt book nor a Dickensian podium in sight, McFadzen’s performance isn’t simply impressive, it’s a staggering accomplishment; a display of unusually great skill not often seen that’s a pleasure to watch.
To steal a little Dickens parlance, it was two years ago, to begin with. Two years ago this very month when Katie McFadzen and her director and script collaborator, Matthew Wiener presented A Christmas Carol for Arizona Theatre Company at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. The show you’ll see in Tempe is essentially the same production, but there are differences.
The presentation at Herberger was quite unique. Both audience and performer were on stage, huddled together for a shared experience in an intimate setting. It was as if the whole of Herberger’s theatre was really Santa’s grotto, with a lighted passageway of white Christmas lights that lead you through the house and up to a temporary, makeshift black box theatre with limited space, all on the Herberger main stage to be shared by ticket holders and performer alike. Because of this intimacy, the actor could engage on a more natural level without having to project a heightened sense of theatrical reality to the back row.
The new staging in Tempe, again directed by Wiener, is considerably more traditional. This time the play is performed within a proscenium arch to an audience seated not in the four of five raised rows as before but to a large audience packing the orchestra and the theatre’s upper balcony levels. As a result, this time, McFadzen has to project with body movements and facial expressions more animated in order to be seen and heard. Yet, such is the actor’s ability to draw an audience in, intimacy remains, even in a larger setting.
As before, with just a minimum use of props consisting of an antique table and chair, a cloak and hat stand upon which a dressing gown hangs “in a suspicious manner,” plus atmospheric sound effects of bell chimes, clanging clocks, chilling winds, and the addition of swirling London fog, McFadzen struts the stage while narrating the classic Dickens tale of the old miser’s redemption, changing from character to character when required with just the slightest alteration of voice or the physical change of stance, creating the illusion that the Childsplay stage is actually populated by several characters rather than just the one. When the invited guests enter Fezziwig’s Christmas Eve party in the warehouse, as mimed by McFadzen, it’s as if you can actually see their arrival. And when the actor points and indicates where the cold roast could be found, or the mince pies, or the cake, or the beer, you can practically see it all sitting there on the table, waiting to be consumed.
When presenting the novella in this fashion with both original (though edited) narration and dialog, there’s an extra layer of authentic Dickens achieved that’s not always possible with a performing ensemble.
Describing Jacob Marley’s transparent body and planting the image of how Scrooge, looking through his dead partner’s apparel, could see the two waistcoat buttons on Marley’s coat behind (including the absence of his bowels) is a detail rarely created for the mind outside of either reading the book or heard in a classic BBC radio adaptation. Nor do we usually get to savor the moments when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge out under an inky black sky, replete with twinkling stars, to witness human souls toasting Christmas alone in a lighthouse or on the deck of an ocean-going vessel, yet they’re all here, outlined in McFadzen’s telling. They’re moments that add to the richness of the story not always presented in other productions. And during Scrooge’s change of heart when it’s explained that how, with the giddy spirit of someone drunk on joy, he finds that everything he sees could yield him pleasure, that authentic Dickens phrasing and the feeling it creates is so heartwarmingly wonderful, you’ll wish it was something we could all experience on a daily basis, Christmas or not.
Look for the expression tour-de-force. Its literal translation means a ‘feat of strength.’ Its definition is an occurrence demonstrating brilliance or a mastery in a field. It may well describe Dickens as a writer, but, as evidenced in New York, not a performer. That honor belongs to Katie McFadzen. The words may be Dickens, but the voice and delivery is Katie’s. As Tiny Tim might have observed, Merry Christmas, and God bless Childsplay for bringing Matthew Wiener’s original ATC production back to the valley and including it in its Christmas repertory along with Go, Dog, Go at Tempe Center for the Arts. Seeing it once again is, indeed, a seasonal gift.
A Christmas Carol with Katie McFadzen continues until December 24 at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe.