The holiday season is the time when every theater pulls out their festive productions to lure families to the theater. For some it’s “The Nutcracker,” but most often it’s Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Since Bonnie Monte took over the reins as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey (then called the Shakespeare Festival) in 1990, the company has grown in reputation and educational outreach. And with the inauguration in of their new theater on the campus at Drew University in Madison, their season has expanded to include the month of December. With that came the dilemma: what holiday show would it be?
Monte vowed never to do “A Christmas Carol” preferring to give her patrons something different from other theaters’ fare. But she also wanted to select a holiday play that didn’t particularly dwell on any specific religious tradition. She says, “I wanted something that transcended belief systems and focused instead on what is completely common to the humanity that many people feel at that time of year.”
In Monte’s quest for the holiday play for this year, she asked an actor colleague if British writer Neil Bartlett’s version of “Oliver Twist” would be a possibility. “Much too dark,” was his reply. But Monte decided to send for a copy anyway for consideration for another time of year. The script arrived — along with the script for Bartlett’s adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” Monte says that serendipitous timing played a part in the selection process. She was confined to bed with a back injury and in casting about for something “reachable” to read, she picked up “A Christmas Carol.” “Within four pages — a two page introduction and the first two pages of text, I had completely changed my mind about `Christmas Carol.’ The foreword spoke so eloquently to the focus and style that drives our company.”
Bartlett’s emphasis in all of his work is invention, especially at his innovative Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London, where his company relies more on imagination rather than on exotic special effects, or, as Barlett explains in the introduction to “Christmas Carol,” “without the sentimental upholstery that drags our ideas of the ‘Dickensian’ down into theatrical cliche.
“I wanted to do it using Dickens’ words, and nothing but,” writes Bartlett. “Dickens himself prompted this decision; after all, he wrote the story not just to be read, but to be read out loud, for an audience. His words don’t describe; they enact.” In addition, Bartlett has included spoken and sung Victorian carols delivered a capella throughout the play.
During a rehearsal break, Monte explains why the first two pages of the script captured her imagination, making, she says, her “director’s mouth water.” Bartlett had taken Dickens’ descriptions and found a way to translate them into a “vocal landscape.” What does that mean? Here’s a sample:
Scrooge: Bah Humbug.
Clerks: Tick tick tick tick. Scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch; Scrooge, Scrooge, Scrooge. Scrooge was in his counting house, counting out his —
Scrooge: Chink chink chink chink chink — Bah! Humbug!
“I think these tone poems create an atmosphere and a visceral understanding of the world,” says Monte. And the play has music and songs and dancing. “Inanimate objects are anthropomorphized. Clocks come to life. The bells of London come to life,” says Monte. All of this and still the focus is on Dickens’ London setting, at a time when it was very grimy and dark with poverty, making life miserable for many Londoners.
Monte reminds me that this was an era when many people were starving to death and dying in poor houses. “Bartlett has opened up a large drawer for the director, giving me a bare bones skeleton that allows us to create what the story means for our own world.”
This will be the American East Coast premiere of Bartlett’s “Christmas Carol,” playing November 27 through December 31 at the Shakespeare Company’s Kirby Theater. Under Monte’s direction, nine actors play more than 50 roles.
Most theatergoers in New York City and New Jersey surely have noticed that many plays are being written about our current political situation. And classic plays that are relevant to our times have been selected by artistic directors. So it should not surprise us that Monte also sees “A Christmas Carol” as making a strong political statement.
Monte feels that Americans have fallen prey to Scrooges. “There are many Scrooges among us,” she says. “Greed has become the mantra of our nation.” She makes a comparison: “You’ve got an entire city, New Orleans, that now defies the worst of Dickensian London. We’ve turned our back on that city.” I can tell how deeply Monte feels about this as she brushes back tears and adds, “I’m just disgusted with my planet and my nation. I’m angry with mankind now. We’re destroying our own planet for greed — killing the ground we stand on, the air we breathe, the water we drink. For greed.” She notes that Dickens’ story is also about a society that was riddled with social ills and desperate people.
Monte feels that the story of “Christmas Carol” should be told. She says, “Even the converted forget to be truly charitable.” She hopes that the message of this play will remind us of what is truly meaningful in our lives. “We’ve forgotten how to be happy in the simple things.” She yearns for a time when people will focus on others rather than primarily on how things affects us.
She says, “‘A Christmas Carol’ is about a very bad, nasty man who has a very nasty nightmare. It scares the wits out of him so that ultimately he has this amazing spiritual awakening and can change his life. It’s a rare occurrence. To get there, it’s a dark journey and sometimes we don’t get the full extent of the meaning of it.”
Referring back to this nation’s culture of greed, she says, “One would hope that an awakening from that state to a more humanistic spiritual point of view would be a good thing that could happen to as many people as possible. Then perhaps if we can get people to focus on other people instead of themselves for a little bit, it would be a good thing.”
Never during an interview have I seen a theater artist come to tears of sadness, laughter maybe, never sorrow. But Monte’s ardent desire to make a difference and to right the wrongs is heartfelt. She tells me that as a child, she was a voracious reader, especially fond of T.H. White’s “Once and Future King,” the “Lord of the Rings” stories, the science fiction fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, and many of the books by children’s writer and political activist E. Nesbit.
When she grew up, she wanted to be a knight in shining armor. She says her parents always encouraged her to protect the downtrodden and fight against the bullies of the world. “On several occasions my rebelliousness has gotten me into a lot of trouble. I would stand up bravely with my little girl lance only to get myself in trouble. But I’m glad I did — every time.”
Before coming to the Shakespeare Festival of New Jersey, Monte had been casting director of the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club, and before that had earned her professional stripes with her mentor Nikos Psacharopoulos, renowned artistic director at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
Monte grew up in Stamford, Connecticut. Her parents, brother and sister all are great boosters of the arts, and of Monte’s career in particular. She says, “My parents are tremendous opera aficionados and took their children at early ages to theater, movies, ballet, and opera.” Her dad works for Crystal Light Water, which is also the “official Water of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey” with donations of water for theater events. With this piece of information, Monte is off again prompted to take out her “knight’s sword” and start talking about water shortages in Georgia, the shrinking Great Lakes, and polluted water in general. “Pure water, pure earth, pure air: it’s so important.”
As a child, she began directing when she was five or six years old, but until she was in college, she wanted to be a writer. During her first directing class at Bethany College in West Virginia, she was given a directing assignment to turn a concept into a visual diagram. This captured her imagination and directing became her first love. Her course was set. But the writing experience prepared her well to adapt works for her theater’s stage. This is another connection she makes with “Christmas Carol” adaptor Barrett.
She graduated from Bethany in 1976 with a degree in theater. Since it is a small college, she had the opportunity to gain a lot of experience, directing 20 plays over her years there. Her thesis play was “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring another fledgling artist, actress Frances McDormand as “Big Mama.” It was at college that she also read an inordinate amount of plays. She estimates close to 400. Preparing further, she received a post-graduate degree in directing from the Hartman Conservatory in her hometown.
Another thing that she has in common with Bartlett is her own experience as an adaptor. While at Williamstown, she was part of a collaborative writing team that included Psacharopoulos and Tennessee Williams. You can’t get a more impressive group than that. Among the works that she has adapted for the Shakespeare Theater are “The Blue Bird,” Pirandello’s “Enrico IV,” and the 19th-century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky’s “Artists and Admirers.”
A Christmas Carol, previews begin Tuesday, November 27, 7:30 p.m.; opening night Friday, November 30, 8 p.m., Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison,. Charles Dickens’ story adapted by Neil Bartlett. $28 to $52. Through December 31. www.njshakespeare.org or 973-408-5600.