Everyone's a Critic
The Observer's culture blogTuesday, May 3, 2016
THE GHOST OF PERFORMANCE NETWORK PAST, by Jeff Mortimer
The first words of Dickens' A Christmas Carol are "Marley was dead: to begin with." He lets us know right off the bat that this is going to be what its subtitle says, "A Ghost Story of Christmas," and that unless it is "distinctly understood" that poor Jacob is, or should be, no longer with us, "nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."
In that spirit, nothing wonderful, or at least thought-provoking, will come from what I am going to relate unless you know right off the bat that I'm a little bit fanatical about Dickens' masterpiece, A Christmas Carol groupie/head/geek. I don't know how many times I've read it, maybe 40; it was an annual ritual of mine for at least that many years. And although I've seen very few movies more than once, I've watched the best-by-far film adaptation, the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, at least that often. I own a facsimile of the first edition (itself now more than 50 years old), a facsimile of the manuscript, a variorum text, a book about how the book reinvented the Anglo-American practice of Christmas (the turkey that the redeemed Scrooge sends to the Cratchits supplanted their goose as the "traditional" holiday entree, for example), and several speculative novels in the form of prequels or sequels.
On the other hand, I scrupulously avoid the multitude of stage versions that materialize every Yuletide. I don't begrudge them their existence. No doubt these productions help some theatrical enterprises keep their noses above the waves, just like The Nutcracker does for dance companies and holiday shopping for retailers. But I soon wearied of seeing Scrooge portrayed as merely irritable, rather than inhuman, or a cadre of dancing Cratchits, scrubbed, coiffed and dressed in pretty pastel holiday apparel.
The Scrooge of the book is, seemingly irredeemably, evil. The Cratchits are, seemingly hopelessly and largely due to Scrooge and his ilk, dirt poor. As with Marley's mortality, nothing wonderful can come of this story unless these things are clear, but it's unclear by design in most stage versions, which aim instead to provide suitably merry seasonal entertainment.
So it seemed like a bit of a risk to buy a ticket to Performance Network's Dickens: An A Cappella Christmas Carol last December, but the fact that they put the author's name first, a la Bram Stoker's Dracula, raised the possibility of a more respectful approach, maybe even the "original instruments" Carol that I had long told my friends I dreamed of. My hopes rose along with the curtain when I saw a grubby alley peopled by a quartet of down-and-outers. A visitor of similar estate appears, and they ask him to tell them "that story."
There have been public readings of A Christmas Carol almost since it was first published. Dickens himself prepared a "reading version," and performing it provided a reliable revenue stream. Annual broadcasts by a bevy of stage and screen stars were a staple of radio's golden age.
To situate such a reading in such a setting struck me as genius. It also meant that most of the words in the script would be by Dickens. One major reason why the 1951 movie outstrips the rest is that much of the dialogue and narration is drawn verbatim from the text. Most other versions are diminished by their scenarists' apparent presumption that they could write better than Dickens did. As the afternoon progressed, my remaining doubts collapsed into ashes, from which arose that delicious immersion in an alternate world that characterizes the best times in the theater.
After the show, I collared the intern who was staffing the box office, briefly (relatively) explained how my passion for the work made this production a dream come true for me, and asked her to convey my thanks to the director, Suzi Regan. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that John Manfredi, her partner in running what proved to be the last iteration of the Network, conceived and authored this adaptation.
I was at another show the next afternoon, raving about what I had seen the day before, when I learned that PN was kaput, that the performance I saw was the third from the last in the theater's history. I didn't believe it at first, partly because my source is one who tends to favor the gloomiest scenarios, partly because it had "died" before and risen again, but mostly because I didn't want to.
When I got home, I used the email address that the intern had written on a sticky note for me ("Why don't you tell her yourself?") and composed a wrenching message meant to convey the unsettling stew of satisfaction and sadness in my heart. Confirmation shot back almost instantly, in the form of a mass message detailing PN's demise. That didn't bother me. If I were she, I would have had my email on auto-pilot, too.
And then it hit me. Not only had I been present, or nearly so, at PN's creation, but that presence had come full circle with its passing. I had long thought A Christmas Carol, in December 1981, was the first production in PN's original home on West Washington Street, but Davi Napoleon's praiseworthy piece in the Observer says otherwise, and she surely knows better than I. Perhaps it was the third. A few hours of scrolling through the December 1981 Ann Arbor News on microfiche revealed only that it carried nary a word about this production, which probably didn't help attendance. The run comprised 13 performances, and there were times when the cast members outnumbered the audience (although, in fairness, it's a pretty big cast). In any event, I played the Ghost of Christmas Past.
I appeared in two more PN shows: a quartet of Samuel Beckett one-acts plays directed by the late David Hunsberger (thanks to him, some of us have actually seen most of Beckett's works), and a misbegotten mishmash of pseudo-historical and quasi-mystical claptrap called Mother Lode. But that was the Network then: there was more room for risk. And people like me could participate as well as patronize.
I don't need to be visited by three spirits. The ghost of Performance Network past will always be with me.
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