Before Scrooge barks his first “Bah! Humbug!” in Faction of Fools Theatre Company’s savory “A Commedia Christmas Carol,” ensemble members engage the audience in a pre-show game of catch.
In Victorian garb and character masks, the Fools bound into Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium and silently toss feather-light spheres at theatergoers. And, at the reviewed performance, theatergoers happily tossed them back. The game went on a bit long — long enough to make one worry whether the have-fun-or-else vibe would carry over into the play.
Hallelujah, it didn’t. If you’re in search of a new take on the old story, head to Gallaudet and be assured that once the action hits the stage, “A Commedia Christmas Carol” crackles and amuses with abandon over a swift 90 minutes. If one gag misses, the next one hits.
Thank Faction of Fools Artistic Director Matthew R. Wilson for that. He has staged Charles Dickens’s parable about the reclamation of Ebenezer Scrooge as a commedia dell’arte farce. Using the commedia acting styles forged in 16th-century Italy and beloved by Faction of Fools, Wilson tells the tale with broad character archetypes. (Scrooge is a miserly Pantalone type. The ghost of Jacob Marley is “il dottore” — the doctor or professor). Except for ingenues and young gallants, the actors work in masks.
The Fools commit high-spirited revelry on a London street of storefronts and mansard roofs designed by Ethan Sinnott to lean slightly askew, as if the carpenter’s level had been a half-bubble off. The cast executes synchronized pratfalls, painful plays on words (“I am presently tense”), and out-of-place references to pop culture (“You had me at ‘Hello’ ”) and politics (“redistribution of mirth”). Marley’s ghost, played by a doleful Toby Mulford, wears a skeletal set of ribs over his waistcoat.
With actor Paul Reisman as Scrooge, Faction of Fools has a comedic savant who can ad-lib his way, Groucho-style, out of any situation. On opening night, one couldn’t be sure whether the chime announcing the Ghost of Christmas Past came late (it did) or whether Reisman’s witty grousing about a missed cue was just part of the show. Behind his whiskery mask with its permanent scowl and bushy brows, Reisman achieves a fine cantankerousness.
While we’re mentioning savory comic performances among a universally able cast, Julie Garner stands out, too. As Mrs. Cratchit — in one of Wilson’s biggest departures from Dickens — she chases after a horsefly to cook for her starving family’s Christmas dinner. In one theatrical moment, Garner morphs before our eyes from the lovely young Clara, wife of Scrooge’s nephew, into Mrs. Cratchit. Fellow actors wrap Clara’s party dress in an apron and cover her face and ringlets with Mrs. Cratchit’s mask and cap. Garner chatters the whole time, shifting from one character into the next. It’s simple but sublime.
Then there’s Michael Sprouse’s deaf Tiny Tim. Sprouse is a senior theater major at Gallaudet, where Faction of Fools is the professional troupe in residence. In an oversize mask with apple cheeks and a beatific expression, Sprouse’s Tim, a benign and sprightly presence, signs his lines. His father, Bob Cratchit (amiable Joel David Santner), gives voice to Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, every one!” Having that line first expressed in gestures and then aloud gives the show a sudden, unexpected emotional depth.
“A Commedia Christmas Carol” bestows far more silliness than deep feeling, but director Wilson et al. know that you can’t tell the story of Scrooge without a dash of heart. They just enfold it in pratfalls, pranks and puns. And bless ’em for that — every one.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
adapted by Matthew R. Wilson, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Directed and co-choreographed by Wilson. Assistant director/co-choreographer, Rachel Spicknall Mulford. Lighting design, Andrew F. Griffin; costumes, Denise Umland; sound, Thomas Sowers; composer, Jesse Terrill; masks, Tara Cariaso and Aaron Elson, Waxing Moon Masks; projections, Joel David Santner. 90 minutes. Captioning is offered, and some performances are sign interpreted. Presented by Faction of Fools Theatre Company through Dec. 23 at Elstad Auditorium, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE. Go to www.factionoffools.org.