Charles Dickens' public readings of his long story "A Christmas Carol" were wildly popular; he could, apparently, hold thousands of people spellbound: no props, no costumes; nothing but his voice to bring all the characters to life. Mum Puppettheatre's production - a reprise of last year's - has some wonderful puppet/props and certainly smaller audiences, but it's no less enthralling than the 19th-century show must have been.
The familiar story - cleverly and economically adapted by playwright Bruce Graham - begins, as it always does, with old Ebenezer ("Bah, humbug") Scrooge on Christmas Eve, confronting the stinginess of his life and soul. He's mean to anybody who comes along, including his hardworking clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his loving nephew Fred. He's even mean to us: Just as we're getting warmed up, belting out "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," he interrupts with, "What is the meaning of this? Throw the vermin out."
Scrooge is visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past, who shows him scenes from his lonely, loveless childhood. The Spirit of Christmas Present, a jolly Bacchanalian figure, shows him the world as it is, especially the impoverished Cratchits at home and poor, sick Tiny Tim. The Spirit of Christmases to Come shows him the terror that awaits if he doesn't mend his ways.
Which of course, he does. Despite the dark mood, the scary lighting, the surprising effects, and the clanking of chains (which makes the show unsuitable for little children), there isn't a doubt that there will be a happy ending.
Robert Smythe's puppets are astonishingly imaginative; a face in a top hat, a tiny family in the back of a tattered armchair, silhouettes, and masks in endless variety. The set is merely a tripartite screen of many, many functions, and, wittily, a wooden coffin that serves as Scrooge's accounting desk and his bed.
As Scrooge, Gregg Almquist is by turns hateful and pitiable. His joyous transformation is surprisingly moving. Hearts were warmed.
The truly Dickensian star of the evening is Jered McLenigan, who plays everybody else: all the Cratchits, the elegant nephew and his entire family, the many and distinct voices of all the puppets, sometimes in rapid succession as they talk to each other. He appears as the ghosts and spirits, and seems able to be - and to talk - in several places at once. He plays 25 characters in all, seemingly effortlessly.
It's nice to be reminded in this season of rampant materialism that there are more important things than money. And it's nice to see a holiday show that is so imaginative and so intimate and so accomplished; lots of talent, no glitz, a real treat.