Just about everyone knows the tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who sees the errors of his ways thanks to visitations by three ghosts sent to him on Christmas Eve by his seven-year-dead partner Jacob Marley. In the end, he becomes the good-spirited benefactor to his clerk Bob Cratchit and a second father to Bob's sickly boy Tiny Tim. But few have actually taken the time to read the novella, which has spawned thousands of stage and film performances of the iconic story since its publication 170 years ago. And that was, in large measure, the magic of Dr. Ken Bryant's solo performance of A Christmas Carol at the Laboratory Theater of Florida over the past two weekends.
Performing A Christmas Carol solo is risky business. First, it invites comparisons to other actors who've attempted the feat, not the least of which was Charles Dickens himself. It was a centerpiece of many acclaimed readings given by the author late in his life, including at Boston's Tremont Theatre (now the Tremont Temple), where Dickens made his U.S. debut in 1867.
Dickens' great-great-grandson, Gerald, has been giving solo performances of A Christmas Carol since the yarn's 150th anniversary in 1993. But one name in modern culture is synonymous with one-man performances of A Christmas Carol, and that name belongs to Patrick Stewart. Yes, that Patrick Stewart - Captain Jean-Luc Picard from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier, leader of the mutants in the popular comic-book adaptations of the "X-Men." Stewart has been performing A Christmas Carol sans supporting cast even longer than Gerald Dickens, taking on the avocation annually since 1989.
Okay, so Ken Bryant is no Patrick Stewart. But his solo performance of A Christmas Carol was powerful and charming in its own fashion.
It is clear from the outset that Dr. Bryant loves Dickens. Bryant doesn't just deliver lines from the novella. He masticates Dickens' prose with the enthusiasm and reverence of an Andrew Zimmern diving into a pate' of snail caviar in France or plate of curried iguana in Trinidad and Tobago. People don't talk like Dickens writes any more, and Bryant's elocution, articulation and phrasing brought out the spice and flavor of Dickens' writing. Unfortunately, Dickens' linguistic mastery is typically missed in full-scale productions, where the emphasis is on the sets, costumes, and the performances of the dozens of actors customarily cast to fill the roles of the more than 40 major and minor characters who appear during the course of the story.
And perhaps that is why Dr. Bryant opted to cast the Lab Theater's performance as a one-man show.
From a directorial standpoint, Dr. Bryant's decision to place the emphasis on Dickens' linguistics and storytelling converted A Christmas Carol from mere holiday-season entertainment to a collaboration with the audience in the tradition of performance art. It invited, nay, demanded the audience to use their own imaginations to envision 19th century London and the ghosts of Marley, Christmas Past, Present and Future, as well as Scrooge's sister, nephew, lost love, Fezziwig and, of course, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. It was like going to an art exhibition and all the artist provides are frames and a set of instructions, leaving it to viewers to conjure their own imagery in their individual and collective mind's eyes. (And if that sort of challenge appeals to you, be sure to attend Yoko Ono: Image Peace at the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery on January 24.)
In the final analysis, it probably takes an actor with Shakespearean training to pull off a solo performance of this Christmas classic, and Dr. Bryant does hold a Master's degree in Shakespeare and a Doctoral degree in Dramatic Criticism. Among his other credits, he has played the Ghost of Hamlet's father in Hamlet and Brabantio in Othello at the Lab Theater. And as Artistic Director Annette Trossbach pointed out in her introductory comments, "Ken has consulted Charles Dickens' private notes for the performance and narration he is doing for you today."
While a solo production of A Christmas Carol is not for everyone, it does underscore the value of a community theater like the Laboratory Theater of Florida, which routinely takes risks in order to bring Fort Myers' and Southwest Florida audiences plays, productions and slants they simply will not find anywhere else .... unless they are lucky enough to catch an iconic actor like a Patrick Stewart or Gerald Dickens at the height of their game.
The Laboratory Theater of Florida is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which is dedicated to the promotion of the performing arts, through live performance, education, community outreach, experimentation and the development of ensemble work. The company features ensemble productions, produces classic works, takes artistic risks and features and challenges local performers of various skill levels. Stay up to date with its news and events on Facebook and Twitter @LabTheaterFL. For more information, please call 239-218-0481. The theater is located at 1634 Woodford Ave. Fort Myers, 33901.