For those who love “A Christmas Carol” but, quite frankly, are ready for something new, the Bristol Riverside Theater has chosen as its holiday offering Mark Brown’s “The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge,” a totally captivating sequel to the Dickens classic. Brown, a former member of McCarter’s resident acting company, also wrote Bristol Riverside’s striking season opener, “Around the World in 80 Days,” and it is easy to see why the theater chose the highly unusual step of putting on two plays in a row by the same author.
One year after that miraculous Christmas, when Scrooge’s whole life appears to have changed, he seems to have reverted to his old curmudgeonly, pinch-penny ways. Furthermore he has brought charges against Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come for “attempted murder, kidnapping, breaking and entering, trespassing, stalking, slander, theft, pain and suffering, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Scrooge, it hardly needs saying, has elected to serve as his own lawyer, and the plot unfurls as the increasingly exasperated presiding judge calls on Scrooge and the defense attorney to question the witnesses. The judge’s exasperation almost reaches the breaking point when it comes time for the defendants to take the stand, not a simple matter since three of them do not exist, and the fourth, Jacob Marley, “was as dead as a door-nail.”
The script takes off from Dickens’ original text and plays out what might have happened next. The audience will recognize all the characters, many lines from the original in a delightful new context, as well as many of the theatrical tricks of the trade “Christmas Carol” productions often employ, such as to have the ghosts appear in surprising ways, their voices enhanced by an exaggerated echo. Here, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come speaks, all the audience can the hear is the garbled echo, so the court appoints a translator, in this case, a Russian gypsy woman. A short echo from the spirit can result in paragraphs from the translator, and the spirit’s lengthy responses to the judge often turn out to be in English but one word, “yes.” And in keeping with the true spirit of “A Christmas Carol,” we learn that the three spirits still have work to do, only this time, it isn’t on Scrooge.
The single set, designed by Nels Anderson, represents the courtroom, with the audience sitting where spectators would sit in an actual courtroom. Indeed, Mrs. Cratchit joins the audience just before the trial begins, and when the judge enters and the bailiff cries “All rise, please,” most of the audience has already become wrapped up in the spirit of the occasion to rise with Mrs. Cratchit.
David Howey, who plays Scrooge, and Ezra Barnes who appears as Solomon Rothschild, the defense lawyer, are both Bristol Riverside veterans, and both do a splendid job. Douglas Campbell, the judge, and Andrew Boyer, the bailiff, are highly experienced actors who happen to be new to Bristol Riverside Theater. One hopes they will come back again soon. Although these four actors each play only one role, Mark Brown has, as he did in “Around the World in 80 Days,” written multiple roles for the remaining five. Tim Moyer, Foster Cronin, Jo Twist, Sarah Hankins, and Moira Wylie are called on to represent two or three characters apiece, sometimes requiring astonishingly rapid costume changes. All five manage their multiple parts with distinction.
Visually, this is a splendid production. The set is striking without being pretentious and is spacious enough to allow a variety of movement. The visual impact is enhanced by the handsome costumes, designed by Linda Bee Stockton; imaginative lighting, by Ryan O’Gara; and, for Americans at least, amusing business with the powdered wigs worn in English courts. The presence of ghosts allows the director to play with a variety of lighting and sound effects, the latter by sound designer Daniel A. Little. Edward Keith Baker, the company’s artistic director, has directed the production.
Clearly it was not just the actors who were having a good time. One man in the audience was heard to remark that he couldn’t remember when time had ever passed so quickly — he was astounded when the lights dimmed for intermission. It looks as if Bristol Riverside has another hit on its hands, and for those who do not know the theater, this is a wonderful way to discover it, just about 30 minutes from Princeton.
The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, through Sunday, December 10, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. A play by Mark Brown finds Scrooge one year after his miraculous Christmas, taking all three spirits to court. $29 to $37. 215-785-0100.