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Hedgerow Theatre has produced an annual family-friendly production of A Christmas Carol for 25 years, and this season, it will run from December 6 through 24. However, the company wisely decided to begin the holidays with a short run of artistic director Jared Reed's adaptation, which premiered at West Philadelphia's Curio Theatre Company (which he cofounded) in 2008.
A Christmas Carol is the most produced show in the nation, with at least 40 professional productions this year, according to American Theatre magazine. Most are large-cast celebrations featuring cheery spectacle and familiar carols, including Hedgerow's, the yearly Walnut Street Theatre musical version, and McCarter Theatre Company's annual extravaganza.
However, solo performances exist. Patrick Stewart has a nice one, available on DVD. But for a live performance in an intimate theater, Reed's can't be beat.
What it really is
Reed appreciates that Dickens's 1843 novella is both ghost story and time-travel tale; most large-cast adaptations flatten and soften these aspects. It was not written for children, who haven't experienced enough of life to internalize Scrooge's regrets and realizations. Moreover, though Dickens helped to reinvent Christmas as today's blockbuster event, his story barely mentions Jesus, the birth story, or that Victorian invention: Santa Claus.
In a neatly edited version, just 80 minutes long, Reed tells us the story, voicing every character with clarity and economy, clipping along as British actors often do (and Americans often don't) in an English accent.
What I recall about this version 10 years ago was its simplicity and honesty. We never know or think about who Reed is, except the storyteller. He's dressed in a somewhat Victorian jacket and top hat but wears khaki trousers. He shares the story with little embellishment and no editorializing.
This Hedgerow revival — director and designers uncredited, though Gay Carducci staged the original — strays from Reed's successful minimalist approach in a few small ways. He appears with only a table, a candle, and a trunk. The candle's glow is subtly enhanced with stage lighting, adding some color for each ghost's visit. As always, Hedgerow's craggy stone back wall becomes its own foreboding shadowy character.
This version also adds background music at a low volume. It seldom matches the action and feels generic, playing constantly with no positive results. Redundant sound effects play even though Reed cuts description of how characters talk, skillfully acting their idiosyncrasies instead.
The effects copy an action such as "he closed the door" with an artificial door-closing sound that's not only unnecessary but calls attention to itself. It’s a minor yet nagging fault in an otherwise masterful performance.
Reed's adaptation provides a more thoughtful, grounded, and personal telling of the familiar story, inviting us to conjure the supernatural events in our imaginations and to experience Scrooge's transformation with him. Reed appears like a ghost — lighting a match on a dark stage with his first words, "Marley was dead." He then exits, spiritlike, by extinguishing his candle, rewrapping the old tale as a theatrically eerie experience.
Sure, share the happy, colorful spectacle of most productions of A Christmas Carol with the kids. It obviously keeps working. Immersion in Dickens's words via Reed's expressive yet soothing voice, however, provides existential chills and spiritual thrills that make a fine Christmas gift for adults.
What, When, Where
A Christmas Carol. Written by Charles Dickens, adapted and performed by Jared Reed. Through December 2, 2018, at the Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. (610) 565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org.
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