Review: Marionette "A Christmas Carol" Pulls All the Right Strings

A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan

Adapted and directed by Vít Hořejš

Presented by Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre at Theater for the New City

155 1st Avenue, Manhattan, NYC

December 19-January 5, 2020

Vit Horejs and Scrooge puppet. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
By the late nineteenth century, Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol had already been adapted for the stage, and it has remained perennially popular and frequently adapted ever since, most recently for the screen by Steven Knight in a dour reimagining for FX. Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre's version, A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan, now playing at Theater for the New City, is something like its opposite, a genial, humorous, inclusive production created by founding company member Vít Hořejš. Hořejš stages this Carol using an array of marionettes, most of which hail from Prague and which include some new puppets, some 200 years old, some discovered on the Upper East Side by Hořejš, and even some donated by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Katarina Vizina and Valois Mickens. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
While there was not quite as wide of an age range in the audience as among the puppets, the presence of families with young children added to the festive atmosphere. As the production begins, two singers with the look of Victorian carolers (Valois Mickens and Katarina Vizina) awaken a snoring man (Vít Hořejš), who offers them tea while pouring wine for himself (don't worry: they rectify this situation soon enough). Shortly, the man begins his one-man, many-marionette retelling of A Christmas Carol, with what was his bed serving as Ebenezer Scrooge's own residence and bedchamber and the rest of the action unfolding in a small, adjacent nineteenth-century puppet theater. The major incidents hew closely to the familiar progression of Dickens' narrative, with Scrooge's establishment as a heartless miser, visitations from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and consequent change of heart and outlook. Within this framework, the adaptation makes tweaks such as the addition of explicitly Jewish characters, including two women who cannot but be happy at their landlord Scrooge's passing not only because of their poverty but also because of their "lifestyle." It also weaves in some topical and some meta jokes, such as the observation that the Ghost of Christmas Past seems to be a Czech water spirit. Of a piece with this cheeky attitude, the actors exist in the marionettes' world, which means that singers become at once audience, performers, and stagehands. The singers too provide the connective tissue that binds the scenes together, with snatches of songs in languages including Swahili, Hebrew, English, Spanish, and, most prominently, with an uptempo arrangement of the traditional Czech "Rocking Carol."
Townswomen light the menorah. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Hořejš delivers an eminently charming performance, and Mickens and Vizina make for effective low-key comic sidekicks. Jacob Marley's ghost, an abstract marionette made of chain, makes a striking visual impression, as do moments when the large, skeletal Ghost of Christmas Present and the equally large, devilish Ghost of Christmas Future fly away with Scrooge on their appointments with his own timeline. The show also generates some funny jokes from the puppets themselves and their appearances, including having some fun with Bob Cratchit's over-large family (a wiggly camel was also a hit with the audience in his short appearance). An interior redesign sequence following Scrooge's reformation is similarly funny, and the aside that Scrooge's newfound generosity is still just "trickle down" economics is nicely pointed.
Scrooge and ghost. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan provides a fun, warmhearted mix of tradition and novelty with something to appeal to family members of any age. If that weren't enough, the puppet store opens to the audience after the performance. Sometimes, it seems, good things do come with strings attached.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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