note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Ken Happe
Little did a saintly bishop named Nicholas from Myra on the west coast of now Turkey know what he was starting --- to say nothing of that carpenter from Nazareth --- and nothing is said of Him in the Forum's production of Charles Dickens' humanistic and essentially secular 155 year old Christmas Carol.
Worcester may be finally getting its very own manufactured theatrical tradition just like Providence and now even Hartford, who this season has also jumped on this sometimes financial bonanza. It gives people who don't go to church something to do during Advent. Wormtown is a bit late --- as usual. There are at least 12 other known productions this month about an hour from greater (or lesser) Worcester. If Dickens isn't your cup of eggnog, there are also twenty scheduled Messiahs, six Nutcrackers, four Ahmals and even a Christmas Oratorio.
This is Forum Theatre Works second production in eighteen months. Last summer they offered a revival ( not that one was needed) of the now venerable Guys and Dolls. About half of CC's cast of 25 worked on G&D. They are products or graduates of a special training program designed to engage more diversified representation of the Worcester community in area theatrical productions. This program began in 1997 with a production of another high school workhorse, West Side Story. What's next Bye, Bye Birdie?
This very laudable experiment has introduced about 50 young Worcesterites and their families and friends to a kind of entertainment some may have been previously unfamiliar with. It is an heroic and even saintly endeavor (worthy of Nick) that Brian Tivnan and Eliza Hale have tried to create, helped by dozens of very generous benefactors. Let's hope they all will be able to keep it up for the needed decade before any real quality work will be achieved.
Tivnan is a graduate of Trinty Rep's conservatory where he saw first hand their evidently glitzy and definitely financially successful CC. I can only presume he hopes in a few years to match their efforts. Whether this 19th century British classic is suitable material for his present cadre of would-be theatre hopefuls, however, is another question.
Elements of West Side Story and of Guys and Dolls may have appealed to the varied backgrounds of his performers. To introduce them to the world of Charles Dickens in almost any form is, of course, to be urged. But while it may be exhilarating to the cast to be working on the show and for the their families and friends to cheer them on, it must also be recorded here even in this season of good will that the majority of the company are woefully out of their depth and that to ask total strangers to fork out eighteen bucks to watch this sociological endeavor seems a bit hubristic.
On opening night, half the cast couldn't get their tongues around the Victorian prose (no matter how much adapted) and another handful couldn't be heard or understood by the 100 or so audience members in Clark U.'s massive, 800-seat Atwood Hall. And while the younger members seem to have been born to bluejeans, they look at present uncomfortable in the lovely period crinolines or winged collars , provided by Paula Ouellete, owner of Fantasy World, a growing costume firm in Gardner.
Mercifully no British accents were even attempted although a scene at the Royal Stock Exchange tells us we're in London. If Tivnan and company had brazenly scraped Dickens and simply created A Worcester Christmas Carol, set in present down downtown and retold the entire story in terms more familiar to his evidently loyal disciples, then it might work better than the present attempt.
Adapting expansive narrative material to the confines of a stage is always challenging and risky unless you are the Royal Shakespeare Company or even the Reduced one. The Forum's adaptors have fallen (and I use the metaphor advisedly) to the hoary device of a Storyteller to tie it all together, a failing all the innumerable movie versions mercifully skirted.
Director Tivnan is blessed in this regard, however, by the presence of Tina Gaffney, who is clear and loud and versatile. She also plays the Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs. Cratchit. Other capable performances are given by Jay Davis as Scrooge and by Joseph Finneral as Marley.
The scenic design is credited to Alan Martin, a usually gifted Forum veteran. I don't know if he is responsible for conceiving the overall scenic conception for the production which is set in twelve different locations, usually indicated by a piece of furniture: a levitating four-poster bed, a slid-on chair, a rolled-off coffin, a Christmas tree on wheels, etc. Martin may have done a lot of skilled building but a bleak, black-draped stage and a too-frequently flown in and out black see-thru skrim curtain ( which should be forgotten about) does not a "set design" make. It's bad enough we have all that old-fashioned London fog to contend with.
The early Forum Theatre Ensemble used to be the avant garde beacon for serious theatre lovers when they did high quality professional productions of daring plays. In the past 18 months it seems (sadly) to have become mediocrely and amateurishly retrograde --- no matter what "60 Minutes" may say. Alas, the company seems to have begun to believe their press clippings.
Perhaps during the 21 performance run of Christmas Carol and after multiple diction, diction, diction lessons, the company will pull itself together. But no matter what, the costume designer must put her foot down and say that a nose-ring is definitely not a 19th century period adornment in London.