Burnham’s A Christmas Carol

By Philip Pearce

TO COMPARE Howard Burnham’s fine online performance as Ebenezer Scrooge last weekend with Gary Bolen’s equally excellent version a week ago provided a kind of dramatic counterpoint.

Burnham’s performing Dickens won him major stage fame as well as some much needed cash after a financially disappointing tour of the United States. We are aware of his dramatic flare as a Victorian theater attraction. Where Bolen emphasizes the warmth and Christmas cheer of the popular tale, it’s clear that Burnham’s Dickens never wants us to forget we are hearing a Victorian ghost story. Without losing the laughs it gets the full melodramatic treatment. His marvelous gift of many voices and many dialects keeps the thrills—and the laughs—going at full tilt.

Where Bolen is acting on stage with props and furniture, Burnham depends entirely on his expressive face and his superb powers as a storyteller. It’s an exciting hour of time-travel back to a man of both literature and theater giving his audience its money’s worth of spooky thrills and bitingly sharp eccentric characterizations.

In a chat session after Saturday’s performance Burnham held out the intriguing possibility that next year he may do a version of the earlier Christmas tale that Dickens later adapted and expanded into A Christmas Carol for the sake of his box office appeal and his pocketbook.

 

A Christmas Carol

By Philip Pearce

IF YOU MISSED Gary Bolen’s outstanding one-man Dickens Christmas Carol last year, MPC Theatre Company, with a little publicity and ticketing help from PacRep, is streaming this year’s version on your local computer screen or laptop. It’s a charming event, lacking only the live performer-audience exchange of energy which is yet another past treasure the coronavirus has snatched from our grasp.

Because Dickens was almost as famous for performing his works as he was for writing them, an actor of Gary Bolen’s range and technical skill might understandably decide to offer us the author himself performing A Christmas Carol. That’s a choice that can turn into a clutter of dialect and costume accessory changes and I’m glad Bolen has resisted it. Focusing directly on the forward sweep of the tale his performance offers us exactly what is happening at the moment: a gifted American tells and acts a classic story involving British characters.

Bolen is a master of what makes or breaks a one-person show: the convincing, back and forth interaction of two or more characters. There’s not a moment’s doubt whether it’s the haunted Scrooge or his ghostly visitor Marley talking about the shocks and horrors of the past and of the night ahead. Or which member of the family is reacting to the Fezziwigs’ Christmas dance or the Christmas Eve parlor games at nephew Fred’s. Position, gesture and accent (The Ghost of Christmas Present is a Scot) draw the distinctions we need and do it with an easy precision that is a master class in seemingly effortless acting.

This Scrooge is less of a shrill and growly curmudgeon than most. Bolen doesn’t stint on the vinegar and sarcasm. His Scrooge is a nasty piece of work. But he also underlines Scrooge’s almost boyish pride in his sardonic wit as a commentator on issues like the British poor laws (“Are there no workhouses?”) or the value of a few working class deaths in decreasing the urban population explosion. He delivers his fusillades of venom with a sly smugness that suggests that Scrooge, like the novelist who created him, cultivates a skill in the timing of his laugh lines. The result is that his change from tyrant to holiday funster, which can seem sudden and hard to believe in condensed versions like this one, here are credible and convincing. The playful prankster was always lurking deep down there below the prickly surface.

The performance lasts about ninety minutes, with a pleasant ten- or twelve-minute prelude of carols by a tuneful, costumed quartet of singers. Bits of the story, like Scrooge’s sad isolation as the only boy left alone at his murky boarding school, have been cut in the interest of brevity and pace. I missed that particular important insight into Ebenezer’s early life and love for his sister Fan.

But you can’t have everything and this is a lovely piece of warm holiday nostalgia that adds some welcome surprises to the world’s most popular holiday classic.