The Dickens is in the Details: South Coast Rep's Christmas Carol Hat Trick

Categories: OC Bookly
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You might wisely think to run, quickly, from anything advertised as an Orange County tradition. Think flying angels at the glass cathedral, boat parades, wreaths hung from auto grilles. But Mr. Bib is here this morning to recruit you into the cult of A Christmas Carol, that 33-year theatrical hat trick staged by the good players of the South Coast Repertory.  The continuing story of the annual making of a play advancing liberal capitalist philanthropy (if not, say, class warfare or genuine redistribution of wealth) should perhaps be less surprising or gratifying in the environs of the lawns, temples and glass-concrete terraria complex sponsored by the Segerstroms, et al but perhaps my own surprise, delight and, lately personal connection to it inspires me in recommending you buy a ticket and read a book about the original, and the life and times of this classic, and its author.  
After all, the month of Dickens pays for the troupe's staging of terrific plays the rest of the year, on the Segerstrom Stage and Julianne Argyros Stage. The old chestnut makes possible other productions, "serious" and new (sometimes premieres) and often avant-garde, not to mention the terrific kid and family theater lineup.

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Writer - reader Jerry Patch
And what accounts for its success? Having now seen A Christmas Carol many times, I say "adapter" Jerry Patch, though maybe that's because I so unreasonably esteem writers. Patch read and studied the novella, changed and dramatized and turned it into a self-referential multi-media invitation which not only encourages the audience to finds its own role, but in some kind of jolly un-selfconscious echo chamber, to applaud that role. I have never been to performances where the clapping begins when the lights go down, before the overture or arrival of the first character. 

That many generations of OC families feel they own this sucker is tribute to Patch's success at making the audience "as much a part of Fred's (Scrooge's nephew) Christmas party as the actors onstage." So that the show is at once a pageant and a literary explication of a book which everybody thinks they have read, even studied, but in fact have mostly acquired by cultural osmosis or one of the many film versions. 

Though in this collaborative effort, it's impossible to overstate the roles of the show's longtime director John-David Keller (also in the cast, and also doing this for over three decades) and the stage manager, Jamie Tucker, as well as a cast which I have now seen firsthand, is so generous and smart about Dickens and Patch's words.

Yes, full disclosure demands that I confess here that my particular personal insight develops much lately from my own kid's experience as one of the child players this year. He's made his parents proud, of course, but, more than than, has caused us to turn our home into Dickensland. It turns out that SCR's thoughtful dramaturgs and actors, cast and crew are experts on the 1843 classic, a deceptively simple-seeming entertainment about ghosts, time-travel, a then-increasingly rightist British Parliament whose actions are famously memorialized in the iconic line about "poor houses," not to mention a response by a liberal utilitarian man of letters of his benighted times to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Further ironies abound, not the least of which being a theatrical variety of weird sentimentality for Victorian London, probably not a very nice place at all.  And the arguable thinness of A Christmas Carol compared to old Chuck's more serious novels, which I have now also been inspired to visit, or revisit. And, yes, this play's gently astonishing place now in the cultural tradition of Orange County, California of all places.

That this play, begun in 1980 and staged as a one-off fundraiser, became a cash cow, not to mention a legitimate sacred cow,is just perfect, I guess. Maybe I haven't seen enough other adaptations and variations of the book, but that this one succeeds so vigorously in our funny little world of institutionalized political reaction and class disparity, Minutemen and Tea Partiers, GOP hegemony (for the moment, anyway, a county which voted for Romney!) and robotic Reaganoid provincialism meets suburban no-nothingism just delights the dickens out of me. My own theory is that a lot gets expressed up on that stage at Christmastime that cannot be the rest of the year, in a play based on a book which, again, a lot of people have not actually read and for whom this is the single live dramatic production they attend the whole year. 

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South Coast Repertory

655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA

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2 comments
atonkovi
atonkovi

Anyhoo?  Thanks for your thoughtful response to my thesis.  

qdpsteve
qdpsteve

Well anyhoo, it's nice to see Jerry Patch is still around. I took his screenwriting class a few times back in the good ol' 1980s at Long Beach City College. Good guy, even if I didn't always agree with his politics.

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