A Christmas Carol at Carnegie Stage

Just when you think no one can do anything new with A Christmas Carol, off the WALL Productions is here to surprise you with Mark Coffin’s one-man rendition of Charles Dickens’ 19th-century classic. Throughout 90 minutes, Coffin plays a host of characters. At the center is Ebenezer Scrooge who hardly needs introduction given this miserly main character spawned his own dictionary entry.

A one-man show is never an easy task. Being the sole point of focus is a burden for both actor and audience, as the latter also lacks reprieve. The sheer volume of 90 minutes of effortless-looking memorization is an astonishing feat in itself. Coffin co-adapted this production with director Heidi Mueller Smith, so the words are Dickens and theirs, allowing Coffin to create a cadence that’s uniquely suited to him. He’s sometimes too comfortable, rushing his lines together. Smith as director could have intervened more strongly to slow him down, especially at the beginning. Pauses you would naturally have between different actors speaking are occasionally lacking, making it hard to ascertain which character is talking.

Its clear Coffin loves Dickens. A program insert speaks to his lifelong love of A Christmas Carol. The downside to that passion is Coffin is loathed to cut the story. Given the one-man set-up, the play could have used a bit more selective editing. One easy cut would be the scene in which Coffin plays young Scrooge’s love interest, Belle, who laments Scrooge’s deepening love for money. Appropriately, Coffin attempts to alter his voice for each character. Lacking the vocal range of Adam Levine, his high-pitched female voice falls short. Belle’s inclusion becomes a distraction that could have been cut without sacrificing the narrative, especially since Coffin is most comfortable and natural playing Scrooge. He taps into Scrooge’s humanity, making his transformation a thing of wonder, not a given, despite our familiarity with the story.

While Coffin may be the lone actor on stage, he’s not alone. A crew of talented designers augments Coffin’s presence like offstage backup dancers. Foremost is Jessie Sedon’s beautiful projection design. The projection design almost becomes its own character, seamlessly transitioning from scene to scene, and Sedon creates some memorable wallpaper projections. When Scrooge sees the face of his deceased business partner, Marley, in the door knocker, Sedon channels a yellowish, weblike projection onto Scrooge’s face. It’s a foreboding image that foreshadows the entangled journey he’s about to take.

Sedon’s projection also helps us keep track of where we are in the story with appropriately minimalistic set design by Adrienne Fischer. Smith has Coffin thoughtfully utilize Fischer’s set, keeping him in motion. Lighting designer Madeleine Steineck is in lockstep with Coffin. When Bob Cratchit snaps his fingers at the start, the lights go out in synchrony. Sound designer Ryan McMasters creates a spooky, omnipresent realism for the ghosts by having sounds materialize from various parts of the theatre when they appear. The sound is also relevant in its absence. The third ghost never speaks, which frustrates Scrooge. He’s a numbers guy who wants concrete answers, but the ghost’s mute silence ultimately aids his transformation as he’s forced to observe.

Having just seen the newest cinematic reboot of another classic, The Grinch, I was struck by the parallels between Scrooge and the Grinch as well as between Fred, Scrooge’s relentlessly cheerful nephew, and the Whos down in Whoville. Both the Scrooge and the Grinch are won over to Christmas, heels metaphorically clicking by the finale.

There’s a cheesy concocted nature to it all, but you come away from both feeling like there’s hope for the world if we all work to understand each other a bit more. At one point, Scrooge asks the ghost of Christmas future if what he’s seeing “will be or maybe?” The question reminds us that the future isn’t pre-determined. Like Scrooge, we all have the power to make choices that contribute to a better tomorrow. It’s a worthwhile reminder we should all embrace, be it a holiday or not.

off the WALL’s production of A Christmas Carol continues through December 15th at the Carnegie Stage. Learn more and purchase tickets online at https://www.insideoffthewall.com/.

Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th century American drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.

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