A Dickens of a Duo

In both shows the cast members do most of their work while sitting around an elegantly laid-out table, intermittently sipping sherry. The light comes primarily from a silver candelabrum, the better to illuminate the supernatural natures of both stories. Costumes for each show, while not identical, are complementary versions of middle-class, 19th-century winter wardrobes, daywear in the case of A Christmas Carol, evening dress for the denizens of Don Juan. The only misstep is the outfitting of Bill Yule's Devil in a black cape with a red lining. With his shock of white hair and patrician looks, he more resembles a well-dressed vampire out for a night on the town.

Presenting the plays in chamber versions creates several compelling effects. In the case of Don Juan, de Acha hits a sweet note, arriving at a drama that is something slightly more than a mere verbal bout between the Devil and Don Juan and slightly less than a full-fledged staging of a play. While faithful to Shaw's polemic mood, the production emphasizes the personalities of the characters and their abilities to live their lives around the heady philosophies Shaw puts in their mouths. Ana, for instance, may have few lines in the script, but she emerges as a major player rather than a simple bystander.

With A Christmas Carol, in which the actors divvy up the duties of portraying Scrooge, Marley, various ghosts and Cratchits, the result is a cozy entertainment. The cast seems to be simultaneously reading us the story from their scripts and performing it.

Is it the same old story? Well, nothing can take the saccharinity out of Dickens. Or obscure the fact that, despite his reputation, Scrooge (a very blustery and amusing Bill Hindman) is an implausibly easy convert, quickly won over to the charitable side of Christmas after contact with just one ectoplasmic visitor.

De Acha's charming adaptation restores some of the literary elements of the tale, reconceiving it as a ghost story that takes place primarily in our heads, not as the overblown theatrical sideshow it usually becomes. The theater piece includes at least one vibrant narrative section -- describing the sinister joy of the grave robbers who have plundered Scrooge's deathbed -- usually omitted from other versions.

With its minimal props but thoughtful direction, the show emerges as a triumph of theater over reality. The famous scene in which the Cratchits' Christmas turkey nearly bursts open, spraying stuffing onto the diners, comes gloriously to life here. Only a Scrooge would notice that there's no turkey and no stuffing actually on stage. If that kind of illusion is not Christmas magic, I don't know what is.

A Christmas Carol, based on the story by Charles Dickens, in repertory with Don Juan in Hell by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring David Alt, Bill Hindman, Lisa Morgan, and Bill Yule. Through December 20. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.

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