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Lab Theater's 'A Christmas Carol' more timely than ever this holiday season

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A Christmas Carol opens tonight at the Laboratory Theater of Florida. Ken Bryant both directs and narrates this classic story, which he's adapted from the eponymous novella written by Charles Dickens in 1843.

The tale has been credited with restoring the Christmas season as a time of merriment and festivity in Britain and America after a period of sobriety and sombreness. Since its publication on December 17, 1843, A Christmas Carol has never been out of print, and has been adapted countless times to film, stage, opera, and other media. But with 1.3 million Americans set to lose their unemployment benefits on December 28 and a widening gulf between the wealthy and the poor, the parallels between pre-Victorian England and present-day America beg to be drawn.

Dickens wrote in the wake of government changes to the British welfare system known as the Poor Laws. Prompted by wealthy landowners who objected to being taxed in order to subsidize the poor, lawmakers passed amendments that prohibited able-bodied paupers from government assistance unless they entered a workhouse, where conditions were intentionally made harsh and punitive in order to discourage the needy from seeking help. Those who refused often ended up in debtor's prison, including Charles Dickens' own father.

This certainly explains why the ghost of seven-year-dead Jacob Marley asks his skinflint business partner to acknowledge the plight of those displaced and driven into poverty by the Industrial Revolution, and the correlative obligation of society to provide for them humanely. Failure to do so, Dickens implies, will result in unnamed "doom" for Scrooge and those like him who believe wealth and status qualifies them to sit in judgement of the poor rather than to assist them.

Some 170 years later, many of the same issues seem to be playing out in American society, where 44% of America’s poor have incomes that are (according to The Wall Street Journal) 50% or more below the government’s official poverty line while (according to Credit Suisse Research Institute) the richest 1% of people own nearly half of all of the wealth on the planet and the richest 10% claim 86% of global wealth. Despite this astonishing disparity, the wealthy - and the lawmakers beholding to them - talk in mean-spirited terms of "makers and takers," the "disaster" of making affordable health care available to tens of millions of uninsured, and the need to repeal rather than increase the minimum wage.

If Congress had its way, there'd be no turkey for the Cratchit family on Christmas day, Bob Cratchit would get a pay cut rather than a much-needed raise, and Tiny Tim would be encouraged to die quickly and thereby "reduce the excess population."

With this as backstory, it will be intriguing to see what interpretative flourishes director Ken Bryant gives to the Lab Theater's production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Bryant has spent a lifetime in theater, designing, directing, acting and teaching theater in colleges across the country. He was the Artistic Director of Key West's Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center, stage managed for Miami City Ballet, and staged opera in Poland. Lab Theater audiences may remember Ken as the ghost in Hamlet and as Skelly in The Rimers of Eldritch. He also directed last year's hit show, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

A Christmas Carol premieres on December 13, 2013 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:15 p.m. for the opening night reception. Other performances are on December 14, 19, 20, 21 at 8 p.m., with matinees on December 15 and 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 for students and children, $18.50 for seniors (Thursday performances) and $22 for adults. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or online at www.laboratorytheaterflorida.com. Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchases are recommended.

The Laboratory Theater of Florida, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, 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, call 239-218-0481. The theater is located at 1634 Woodford Ave. Fort Myers, 33901.

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