A Christmas Carol Like No Other

Santafe.com - December 14, 2011

"A stirring adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic 'A Christmas Carol' by Albuquerque's Blackout Productions"

December is a very special kind of month. The leftover turkey and cheer of Thanksgiving have dwindled and the New Year looms just beyond our sight. Even as we strain to see what future lays in wait for the coming months, the hardships and regrets of bygone days come sharply into focus. The shadows of disappointment overcast our most shining achievements. Yet as I said, December is a very special kind of month. Because even as we take stock and rationalize mistakes--swearing that this next year will be all the different, that it will be better and fuller and freer of our weakness and vice--even with all these pressures, and all our hardships, we still find time to revel in the spirit of the holiday season.

Now is the month where, at the market, we might buy the groceries of the chap in front of us, because we see him desperately searching his pockets for one more five. Now is the month when we might use the extra money we’ve been saving to buy our loved ones a gift, because it might make their lives a little brighter. Now is the month where we try to invite a friend over to share in our dinner, because maybe they don’t have anywhere special to be tonight but are too stubborn to admit it.

It is the one time of year where these seemingly simple acts of random charity are held as an accepted norm, rather than the lauded exception. Yes, all of this goodwill and kindness could be chocked up to too many childhoods spent watching Christmas specials, but I like to think it’s something greater. That our anxieties are not just understood by those around us, but actually felt between one and all. That for one moment of the year, we might stand empathetic of each others' dread. That, maybe, we all know what we could really use in our lives right now is a helping, so we lend our own in kind.

December is one of my favorite months because i am a strong believer in doing daily good. Professionally however, I find it one of the most frustrating months; because if you’ve seen one Christmas show, you’ve seen them all. The Christmas theater season is an endless parade of Nutcracker Suites and “Who’s Santa?” comedies. Worse, when the shows aren’t boring and traditional, they’re hyper experimental and might as well be about mermaids from Mars.

Why is it so hard for production companies to make Christmas interesting? Why can’t a solid troupe come along and make an honest and engaging adaptation of a holiday classic. Why, I ask you, can’t a 505 theater house take a touching Christmas story, like, say “A Christmas Carol,” and rework it into something new and engaging while still maintaining the important messages of compassion and choice.

Well the moons must have aligned with the heavens when i made my impossible wish, because an honest, interesting, innovative and emotional stirring adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic “A Christmas Carol” is currently in production by the Albuquerque theater company Blackout Productions. For those unfamiliar, Blackout is an IFC award-winning theater group committed to the establishment of a quality theatre and culture scene for New Mexico.

With modest beginnings as a UNM theater troupe, they have used their educational roots to constantly challenge themselves as a group, trying new forms of theater and performing arts in nearly every new show. Self financed, staffed and produced, they’ve become one of the foremost production companies in New Mexico, presenting a seasonal calendar of new and interesting productions and offering specialized classes for all age groups.

Blackout’s version of “A Christmas Carol” starts simply enough in St. Louis. The year is 1934, the location an early evening train station as the white snow of a coming storm starts to fall outside. Seven ticket-holding passengers sit waiting for the 6:30 train to Chicago. Their only seeming connection, that they all have a reason desperate enough to travel on Christmas Eve. Predictably, the train gets delayed by the snow and the patrons are left with nothing to do and nowhere to go. As luck would have it, two of those waiting patrons are traveling performers who decide to pass the time by rehearsing their specialty holiday act  “A Christmas Carol.” One by one, the fellow station-goers get sucked into the performance melding their own character’s frustrations with the parts they take on.

One of the play's greatest strengths comes in its pacing. At the beginning of the show, the pace is slow and malaised. As the piece unfolds, the pace picks up, adjusting to the feelings of the characters and their uplifted spirits. It's a subdued performance that, when picked up with the high hat energy of the traveling actor characters, shocks the audience deeper into the play. It's an engrossing experience to realize that you as an audience member have become just as vested in the telling of “The Christmas Carol” story as the train station patrons biding their time till they go their separate ways. It serves as a two-fold message; showing the empowering nature of togetherness and the saving nature of theater.

The shows use of experimental technique is exquisite, employing soft touches of audio visual technology to create an alienating sensation. Unlike many contemporary theater productions that use these effects to the point of absurdity, Blackout has managed to make them strange enough to make you uncomfortable but use that discomfort as the appropriate reaction to what’s happening on stage. By cleverly combining the new technology effects with live music and onstage sound effects, you’re never taken out of the play but rather drawn further and further into the story being unfolded before you.

The use of puppets highlights the show's funniest and most disturbing moments. While most of their applications are comedic and almost satirical in its tongue in cheek presentation, others are truly terrifying. One particular moment in Act Two had my skin crawling, as I had to remind myself I was just watching a play. Given that the performers make no effort to hide the puppeteers, it only stands out as an impeccable implementation of what could have easily been a hackneyed gimmick.

If the show has one shortcoming, it lies in the play within a play aspect. While the "Christmas Carol" portion is phenomenal and engaging, the outer story of the station patrons is fairly cliche and uninteresting. This is both unfortunate and surprising as "The Christmas Carol" portion avoids the cliches usually associated with the Dickens' piece, even making a joke of never letting Tiny Tim finish his famous line,  “God bless us everyone.”

There was a real potential for character growth, yet it never seemed to come to a head. Imagine the play is a painting hanging in a gallery. The painting itself is a masterpiece, its complex use of light and color evoke a genuine appreciation for the subject matter and it stands out as an exquisite piece of art. The frame around the piece, however, looks rough and unfinished. Its molding are off center and the oak is unstained. Does it make the masterpiece within it any less striking? Well actually no, not if you don’t let it. Ultimately however, the train station feels like a framing device rather than a self-contained story, and if that is the play's greatest flaw, then I’ll take it gladly.

Blackout Theatre’s motto of “full spectrum theater” really shines through with this production, and it may just be the best Christmas show I’ve ever seen. It uses a classic piece of literature in a new and interesting way. Its minimalist approach captures both the feeling of its time periodsand the setting of the play as a whole. Its use of experimental technique never feels cheep of inaccessible. It is genuinely a fine piece of theatre.

While a trek to Albuquerque may seen out of the way to some, Blackout Theatre is actively trying to build a bridge between Albuquerque and Santa Fe with their work. The show is both fun and appropriate for all ages, with a soft silly humor kids can love and a deep human exploration that adults can dwell upon. If you’re looking to expose your kids to genuinely good and genuinely interesting theater, don’t miss this opportunity. If you’re interested in seeing an incredible adaptation of the Dickens' classic, get ready to be blown away. If you’re looking for an exceptional piece by some of New Mexico’s finest, look no further. By going a little off the beaten path and making the time to see this show, you will be supporting one of New Mexico's finest art houses, some of its most talented artists and one of the best shows of the year.

"A Christmas Carol" will from December 2-24, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. A very special Christmas Eve performance takes place at 2 p.m. The play is showing at the VSA North Fourth Theatre, located at 4904 Fourth Street NW. It is a short ten minutes off of I-25 and very easy to find. Ticket prices are $15 for general admission and $12 for students, seniors, and ATG members. For ticket reservations, call (505) 672-8648 or email reservations@blackouttheatre.com

If you are interested in supporting Blackout Theatre, their upcoming shows, or their many acting classes, or just learning more about them and “Full Spectrum Theatre,” visit their website: Blackouttheatre.com.