Monday, December 20, 2010

God Bless Us, Every One!

Four years ago, I wrote this article for some friends, and am now reposting it for your amusement. It's from the latter years of my drama days, where the highlight of my existence was drafting friends and siblings into madcap garage performances of Shakespeare and other authors whose works I loved. The Sort-Of Shakespearean Players (S.O.S.Players, for short) have especially fond memories of A Christmas Carol; the fuzzy videotape of our production is as necessary a Christmas film to us as The Muppet Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life. I'm posting it as-is, resisting the rabid temptation to edit myself.

~*~

[In 2004], I directed a production of Charles Dickens's beloved story 'A Christmas Carol'. I was fifteen at the time. Over the summer I adapted a script, and recruited a group of my fun-loving friends to perform in it with me. Most of us agreed to play multiple roles in the show, and I myself took on all the left-overs. I stubbornly insisted on designing and constructing all costumes by myself, wanting to be sure that there was nothing anachronistic in the way my actors were dressed.

The rehearsals were highly stressful to the overworking and overpaying director that I was, and I kept a close record of who attended the Saturday morning rehearsals and what excuses the amateur Thespians who'd gone AWOL offered. My notebook is littered with notes concerning absences; I look back at some of the excuses just to make myself laugh:

In the shower
Still asleep
Strawberry picking
Cleaning up a graveyard
Just plain forgot

Fortunately, I could always depend on my sister Victoria, then 12, and my brothers Josh and Johnny, 10 and 6, to be there. They couldn't miss rehearsals if they wanted to.

The rehearsals were full of fun, and we all enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. However, by the last day I was getting decidedly nervous, especially when Ebenezer Scrooge skipped the dress rehearsal because he was feeling decidedly sick to his stomach after strenuous finals at school and was afraid he was coming down with the flu.

The day of the performance dawned brightly, and after prowling around until a proper hour of the morning, I called up Scrooge only to find that he was perfectly all right and never felt better, and I sighed with relief and slumped onto the sofa to bemoan my night of lost sleep.

This was to be a home production; we transformed our large, comfortable living room into a theatre. One doorway led into the kitchen, another into the garage, situated conveniently at stages right and left for easy entrances and exits. We were planning to have one final run-through of the show before the large family dinner we would have before the show, and I was trying to put together a large Victorian bed for Scrooge. This bed was made of PVC pipes and red curtains, originally intended to be a puppet theatre but easily converted into something that resembled an elaborate bed with nice curtains. Unfortunately, I could not get it to stay upright and was getting considerably frustrated with it when my brother Josh, who was ten at the time, sidled up to me.

"Hey Mar," he said.

"Get out of here," I grumbled irritably, trying to stuff one end of a PVC pipe into another.

"Mar, I was just wondering...whether you wanted any lighting for this show."

I looked up from where I was kneeling on the carpet. "Not really, Josh. I just wanted this to be a simple production. Nothing fancy." My brother is a technowhiz-electronics guy, and I had awful visions of my nice little production being overrun with lights, sirens, and fluorescent orange electrical cords.

"Oh, it won't be anything outrageous," Josh promised.

"Ok," I said, just to get rid of him.

The house was really, really quiet for a long time.

When I looked up, Josh had set up a stepladder just off stage, and crowded on and around it was every lamp in the house, with the lampshades reversed to make spotlights, looking for all the world like a garden of giant flowers turning their faces up as if to see the sun through the ceiling. Josh was standing proudly among them, a silly grin on his face, and already dressed in his fat Mr. Fezziwig costume just to pacify me.

I didn't say anything; I was afraid to.

Half an hour later, my troupe of faithful actors began arriving. The final dress rehearsal was- well, if the old actors' adage that "the worse the dress rehearsal is, the better the performance'll be" carried any grain of truth in it, we were destined for Hollywood. I walked around with a smile plastered on my face, trying not to cry. All the months and months of backbreaking work, and we were going to be the laughingstock of the town...

Somehow, we all sat down to dinner; we hadn't taken off our costumes, and "Fred" soon had enchilada sauce splattered all down the front of her white shirt. From there on, things started really going wrong. Somehow, we got all the parents and family members (a considerable crowd of around twenty) seated in the living room, and I herded all the actors off the stage. Then- but you know, I think I'm going to tell this from a different point of view, just so that you can see what really happened...

**************************

The lights go down. Or rather, off; the only way to reduce all spotlights being to unplug the entire extension cord from the wall, producing an effect of a complete blackout. Worried whisperings from the audience. Let us look backstage at the actors for this performance. They are all seated on the kitchen floor, as all the chairs are being occupied by the audience. Nervously looking out of the bed-sheet curtain is Ebenezer Scrooge, an extremely youthful old miser with thick, curly gold hair and blue eyes; the corners of his mouth are twitching as he tries to put a scowl on a face that normally communicates to the average observer that he wouldn't hurt a fly.

Next to him is sitting Bob Cratchit and Mrs. Cratchit, bearing an unusual family resemblance; sitting curled up in Mrs. Cratchit's lap is a little Cratchit daughter, looking very shy and sweet. Right beside them, Tiny Tim is randomly whacking at people with his crutch. Scrooge's good-natured nephew Fred is leaning against the wall in one corner, the enchilada splotch effectively hidden by a very tight, two-dimensional vest splitting at the sides.

A Lady and Gentleman are lounging around in the shadows, and a tall black figure moving suddenly in the darker corner of the kitchen might be recognized as the Ghost of Christmas Future if she would move a little more into the light. Mr. Fezziwig/Gentleman is perched up on the stepladder, ready to plug in the lights again. A small Lady and rather mischievous looking Little Scrooge are whispering in the opposite corner; Belle and Young Scrooge are sitting boredly by.

Ah, yes- not to forget the director. Her long hair is folded, tucked under, and pinned in a manner which not only makes it appear delusively short, but sticks out around her head giving her a rather odd, lumpy appearance. Long chains from a broken swingset dangle from her arms and neck, jingling loudly to make the only sound in the quiet House. She moves forward now and pushes Scrooge and Bob Cratchit out onto the dark stage, tripping over the properties and trying to orient themselves in the dark.

The lights come on suddenly.

Enter Fred, a smiling Fred unusual in this show for the only person wearing a genuine silk top hat.

"A Merry Christmas to you, Uncle!"

"Bah, humbug."

Poor Fred stumbles on a line but pulls through it heroically; she is one of the only ones who has completely memorized her lines for the show. Scrooge can be seen stealthily referring to a small blue notebook on his desk. His voice is husky, but he vehemently repeats his signature line with relish, trying not to smile each time.

Exit Fred. Enter a Lady and Gentleman; the Lady is at least two heads taller than the Gentleman. They ask if Scrooge would like to contribute to a fund to "buy the poor some meat and drink and means of warmth," and when that is refused, they look at each other and exit timidly. A church-bell strikes six o'clock, a bell whose sound strangely resembles that of a tin pan being beaten with a wooden spoon; but we must dismiss these outrageous fancies and concentrate on the scene before us. Bob Cratchit has risen from his nondescript desk and is putting on a ragged plaid coat and equally shabby gray top hat, a hat that appears to be made of strips of construction paper stapled together. It is obvious from his attire that he is not rich. The spotlight jumps to him and he flinches and puts a hand before his eyes. The directress can be heard shouting offstage to Mr. Fezziwig, who pokes his head out of the curtains and wiggles his eyebrows at the audience from on top of the stepladder. The lighting adjusted, Mr. Cratchit begs to have Christmas Day off from work, and when his employer grudgingly agrees, the scene blacks out in the midst of thunderous applause from the wings and gallery.

Scene two opens in darkness; by squinting hard the tall, straight figure of Ebenezer Scrooge can be seen sitting in an armchair before his bed. He is wearing a purple-and-blue-striped bathrobe and trying to look at his script in the dark. For this scene, he had been supposed to wear a nice white nightcap with the old grimy strings of a mop attached, to make it appear as if he has gray hair, but he has somehow conveniently lost this in the jumble of other stage properties. It will not appear in this show.

Scrooge looks worriedly offstage; the tin pan strikes midnight and a rattling of chains can be heard coming from somewhere behind his bed. Enter Marley's Ghost, rattling her chains, and brushing up against the solid-looking bed manages to send the whole flimsy structure of PVC pipes and nylon crashing on top of Ebenezer Scrooge. Some slight confusion ensues, and in the obscurity they manage to right it quickly and proceed with the scene. Marley strikes a pose and an eerie blue spotlight comes on suddenly; the change of color being effected by a clear plastic plate held in front of the lamp by the ever-obliging Mr. Fezziwig.

Marley is the only one who knows herself to be capable of memorizing any number of lines; therefore in writing the script she has not omitted a single one of that character's speeches, and the audience wonders how so airy a spirit can be such a windbag. The rather Shakespearean Ghost exits, and almost immediately the striking of the pan is heard again.

Enter the Ghost of Christmas Past, bearing a singular resemblance to the tall Charitable Lady of Scene One, dressed in filmy white gauze and bathed in white light. A look of overdone shock comes over Scrooge's face, and he takes the Spirit's hand as she leads him to a little desk on stage right. The spotlight shifts to a small boy sitting at the desk, of rather a mischievous countenance, whom Scrooge immediately identifies as himself in days gone by. The boy tries to seem dejected; enter his little sister Fan, who comes up to him and expresses a desire to take him home. (This same young lady has been rather long in entering, as a result of her wire-hanger hoopskirts getting stuck between the doorway and the stepladder, and her oatmeal-can bonnet sliding off her blonde head). The boy jumps up like a jack-in-the-box, and with an explosive "Home, dear sister?!" seems just as happy as any other boy would be at the prospect of going home on Christmas instead of staying at school.

Scrooge reaches out a hand to touch the boy, but the Spirit admonishes him not to do so, as these are but shadows of the past and have no consciousness of them. Scrooge obstinately does so, and finds that perhaps the boy is not so shadowy as the Spirit asserts, as with a loud "hey!" he exits the stage with Fan.

The lights snap off, and there is some confusion again. The lights snap on again, to normal lighting now, revealing an older Scrooge sitting at a card table counting pennies; she is wearing a tight tan corduroy vest that is much too short, and a black cardboard top hat which strangely contradicts its name by lacking a top. It slides over her face and Dick Wilkins, her friend, catches and rights it; this same Dick looking very much like the windbag ghost of the previous scene.

Enter a short Mr. Fezziwig, with a pillow in his shirt, who has with reluctance descended the brilliant stepladder. Dick Wilkins notices with chagrin that Mr. Fezziwig is not wearing any shoes. Mr. Fezziwig invites everyone to a large Christmas party, and the stage is instantly in a turmoil as the money is swept off the card table and replaced with a bag of apples and a pyramid of empty plastic cups. Mr. Fezziwig disappears offstage to adjust the lighting, and Dick Wilkins stoops to press the play button on a device that appears rather modern considering this takes place in the nineteenth century. Instantly music from The Nutcracker blares out, and guests begin arriving; some of them stand in a circle drinking and laughing, and others attempt to dance; Dick Wilkins dances with Fan, with a height difference of at least four feet between them, considering Dick's hat. Mr. Fezziwig hovers around with a benevolent grin on his face; his hat several times either loses its brim or its crown, and can be seen on his head in various states of decay; he finally casts it aside, flinging it behind him where it knocks over the pyramid of cups.

Exit the guests, with the exception of the Young Scrooge and Belle who immediately strike poses in center stage and burst out laughing. This is one of the most highly tragic scenes in the play; what is more heartbreaking than the failure of young love? Belle seems most bent on casting off this undesirable boyfriend, and reads her speech off some cue cards which have unfortunately been shuffled quite bewilderingly. She wanders about the stage squinting at the little cards until she steps on one corner of her sweeping dress, revealing the hoopskirts- a framework made of grapevines- underneath. Finally, managing to find the correct line, she tells poor Ebenezer sadly, but with a smile on her face, that she cannot accept him, and that when they had become engaged, he had been a different man. Ebenezer declares, "I was a boy," much to the amusement of the audience, and bursts out laughing herself. A grim Dick Wilkins can be seen surveying the scene from on top of the stepladder, shaking her head sorrowfully and prompting the two ex-lovers in their tragic rejections.

Somehow, amid the roars of the audience, that scene ends.

"Show me no more, Spirit, show me no more!" Scrooge implores, covering his face and shaking with either tears or laughter, most likely the latter but possibly both. The Ghost of Christmas Past insists that she must show Scrooge one more scene. Enter Belle again, this time with Marley's Ghost/Dick Wilkins, who now appears as her husband. The Husband remarks sadly that Scrooge is a lonely man, and then the lights go out.

The striking of the tin pan announces the coming of the Ghost of Christmas Present, in a teal bathrobe, a giant jingle bell around her neck, and a wreath of poinsettias in her strawberry blonde hair. She seems to have recovered sufficiently from being rejected in the former scene, and looks very happy and jolly indeed.

To Scrooge's surprise, she leads him to the Cratchit residence, where a flustered Mrs. C is welcoming home her daughter and setting the table. Enter Mr. C and Tiny Tim, who seat themselves at the table and, after a short grace, begin a very simple meal of pita bread and water.

Marley/DickWilkins/Husband, watching from offstage, watches this scene with the utmost satisfaction. Of all the people in the play, the Cratchits do their scene to perfection, and the way the little family huddles together eating their flat, meagre fare is very touching to behold. They have all memorized their lines, and this scene becomes one of the most special in the play. It is only marred by a certain young Peter Cratchit, looking like a thinner version of Mr. Fezziwig, who slurps all of his water out of his cup and flings it behind his back, causing Scrooge's bed to totter precariously once more. Holding up his crutch, Tiny Tim says, "God Bless us, every one!"to the delight of the audience, and the Ghost of Christmas Present turns on Scrooge, reminding him that it might be a good idea to reduce this surplus population. As if taking these words to heart, the Cratchits vanish from the stage.

The scene shifts to Fred's house; his Wife, a Lady, and two Gentlemen are with him. They have a dance, which turns out rather longer than the First Gentleman remembered from the dress rehearsal, and when the song ends, they all sit down dizzily to play twenty questions. Guessing from the clues that the gruff, unkind, London-dwelling animal is none other than Uncle Scrooge, the Wife wins the game. After proposing a toast, the good-natured nephew brings the scene to a close.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, after a little chat with Scrooge, exits the stage. The tin pan strikes again, and in a red light, the spooky Ghost of Christmas Future enters. This tall personage could not be persuaded to memorize any lines, and only with reluctance appeared on stage at all, but agreed to this role in which she only had to point her finger at various actors and properties. She is covered from head to foot in black drapery- old skirts, a blanket, some netting, and a dress- and on one hand wears a black glove with a skeleton's hand on it; a very dramatic effect when it comes to pointing at people and things. Scrooge, strangely enough, does not appear very frightened by this ghastly specter; perhaps he is used to them by the third round or perhaps again it is merely an effect of the infernal lighting.

In a monologue which is rather hard to read in the obscurity, and in answer to which the Ghost only points its skeletal hand randomly at the walls, floor, and ceiling, Scrooge finds himself at the Cratchits' house, where once again that family does a phenomenal job. The Cratchits, sans Tiny Tim, live their parts with a touching reality, and the audience is perfectly silent. The melancholy blue light goes down, and comes up again on two Gentlemen. One of them is our Marley/Dick/Husband/FirstGentleman who now appears as the Third Gentleman. The Fourth Gentleman is a broom with a smiley-face frisbee stuck to its head, wearing Fred's top hat and the remnants of someone else's costume. The two gentlemen begin to talk to each other, the one putting words into the other's mouth. (This was actually the continuation of a tradition from my production of The Comedy of Errors the year before- so many people were missing at the performance that I dressed up a broom as one of the characters and read its lines; it was so hilarious that we decided to do it again the next year and I "ventriloquated" the lines into the Broom's mouth.)

Scrooge gathers from this dialogue that someone has died, and that no one cares very much about it at all. The lights go down and come up again on two Rag-Women and Marley/Dick/Husband/FirstGentleman/ThirdGentleman, which last now appears as a plain old Man with a decided Cockney accent. They proceed to rummage through a sack of Scrooge's laundry and bed-curtains; the latter are not mentioned without a sidelong look at the rickety PVC structure to see if it still holds firm.

The lights go down again and the dark Ghost of Christmas Future points at a tombstone propped up on a chair, on which he reads his name from the script. He falls on his knees before the Ghost, pleading most eloquently to restore to him his life and that he will be a nice person again. The Ghost points at the tombstone yet again, almost as if she does not see Scrooge; perhaps she doesn't, for even if the black drapery had been pulled away from her face, there is still the blue cover of the script between his face and hers.

At this point the lights begin flashing dizzily from red to blue, to portray the inner turmoil in Ebenezer Scrooge's mind; much to the dismay of Marley/Dick/Husband/FirstGentleman/ThirdGentleman/CockneyAccentMan and the delight of the audience, Mr. Fezziwig wails out an imitation of a police siren and bangs on the tin pan as the Ghost of Christmas Future disappears.

Finally, all the lights are turned back on, albeit with some slight confusion about finding the extension cord in the dark. It is plugged in, and the forest of lamps turn their faces on Scrooge, who finds himself back in his bedroom and bursts into raptures of joy. He expresses this by kissing the armchair and bed, which last comes very near to tumbling onto his head again. A small, mischievous boy walks across the stage with hands in pockets; Scrooge accosts him and asks what day it is. The boy tells him loudly that it is Christmas Day, and Scrooge sends him to buy a prize turkey for the Cratchits.

"I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The spirits of all three shall strive within me! And as Tiny Tim says, God Bless Us Every One!"

The play ends. A rather disordered curtain call ensues; the audience gives a standing ovation, and all the characters bow and bow again. The small boy throws a fake turkey into the audience to see their reaction.

The play is a success.

Fortunately, no encore is called.

**********************************

I love to watch the video of this show with my friends. I know that even when we're all a hundred years old, we're always going to remember this very special performance. We all had such a good time at rehearsals and at the performance, and we still call each other by our "stage names." It was far from perfect, but somehow even in its imperfection it was an endearing, memorable performance, and I wouldn't change a bit of it- its quirkiness made it all the more lovable. I will always remember that Christmas Past, and I have a feeling that I haven't seen the last of directing and performing in that show- I will definitely make it a part of my Christmases Future. And in this Christmas Present, may God Bless Us Every One!

~*~

Merry Christmas, my dears. ^_^

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