Larry L. King Theatre at the Austin Playhouse, through Dec. 20
Running time: 1 hr
You've probably seen more permutations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol than you realize. There are definitely more variations than you'd think. Bill Murray in 1980s sleaze. The Muppets. Matthew McConaughey and his ex-girlfriends. One in burlesque, musical versions, modern takes, an episode of Sanford and Son, Mr. Magoo, and countless other animated adaptations (I can't hear "Scrooge" without thinking of DuckTales myself). The list goes on and on. A Christmas Carol was the first play I and every single student in my school district saw, all of us taken to downtown Houston every year to see a classic rendition.
The story of A Christmas Carol is ingrained in our society. It's a simple story in a lot of ways – about redemption and the possibility that people can change and be happy – and though it's one that we're well-versed in now, more and more films, plays, musicals, etc., continue to get schlocked on top of this totemic tale.
So, aside from it being near Christmas, why should you see Austin Playhouse's latest addition to the Christmas Carol totem? Bernadette Nason's one-woman telling of the tale doesn't feel like a version of Carol at all. It feels pure and from the heart, closer to Dickens' novel itself.
The stage is simple, stately, a small staircase with two platforms. Nason walks in; removes her top hat, scarf, and coat; hangs them on the wall; and launches into Carol. Now, this is a one-woman show. And Nason does portray all the characters. But stating these separate facts doesn't fully connect to the statement that Nason is A Christmas Carol. Narrator, characters, beginning, middle, drama, humor, end, and all.
All of Carol being in one woman asks a lot from the storyteller, but Nason delivers. There's never any confusion as to which person she's portraying at any given moment: Each new character is given a flourish, a face, a voice, a mannerism that makes him or her crystal clear. And while storytelling does lend itself to exaggeration, it does so in a way that isn't inherently theatrical. While characters need to be distinct, I was impressed time and again by the economical nature of Nason's storytelling. Every action was deliberate and finished clearly before the next was initiated.
What I found most endearing about this Carol was how earnest Nason's performance was. At one point, she dances with her imaginary Cratchit spouse around a stool without so much as a hint of irony. It never feels like Nason is pandering to the crowd or going the easy route for laughs. She comes off as terminally likable, which is paramount for playing a character or 30.
There are a lot of holiday stories out there intended to warm your heart this time of year. Certainly there is a wide selection of Christmas Carols alone. Austin Playhouse gives one to you simply and precisely, which, during a season that can get very maudlin, is quite refreshing. Toward the end of Carol, the narration states of Scrooge that "his own heart laughed" with joy. That certainly seemed true of Nason in that moment, and of all the audience as well.
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