A Dickens of a Duo

Of all the repertory programs ever devised, the double bill playing this month at the New Theatre has got to be one of the most delightfully odd. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is bound to pop up somewhere this time of year, of course, but would you expect to find it in rotation with George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell? Heavens, no.

The first is a Victorian potboiler, the second a sophisticated comedy about the nature of existence, written by one of the greatest English-language playwrights. These two rarely meet in the same artistic universe, much less the same theater. An even bigger surprise than finding them together is discovering how well they work in tandem.

Maybe it's because "there's a lot of humbug in Hell," as one of the characters in Don Juan comments. Or maybe it's because Rafael de Acha, the New Theatre artistic director who steers both script-in-hand shows, has figured out a wonderful way to make an old chestnut seem fresh. At the same time, he gives experienced theatergoers (not to mention jaded critics with dozens of Scrooges under their belts) something challenging to contemplate at holiday time.

At any rate, I encourage everyone to see both 90-minute shows. Better yet, see them on the same day. It's possible to do that on Sundays, when A Christmas Carol has a matinee. The break between shows can be spent having tea at a nearby coffee shop (which is just what you'll feel like doing after spending an hour and a half in the cold of a Victorian London winter) before returning to the theater to take in what might be likened to My Dinner With Andre set in Hell.

Although both productions are compelling and well acted by a superb four-person cast, on the afternoon I visited, A Christmas Carol was the slightly stronger of the two. Scrooges may come and go, but chances are you may not get another chance to see Don Juan. It's the rarely performed, fascinating third-act dream sequence of Shaw's popular Man and Superman. The playwright purposely wrote the drama so Don Juan could be detached, and though the New Theatre did stage it before, during its 1989-90 season, most theaters avoid it, preferring, if anything, to present the more audience-friendly romantic comedy that surrounds it.

For serious theater fans, however, Don Juan is the play in which Shaw first introduced his notion of the Life Force, a kind of Darwinian self-improvement program (even Shaw sometimes made fun of it) that became the basis for the playwright's personal mythology and that of many of his fictional heroes and heroines. The idea, as espoused by Don Juan (yes, that Don Juan) has to do with the desire to create a superior kind of human being. The play presents the politics, sexual and otherwise, involved in achieving such a "superman." Don Juan insists that idealism propels humanity and inspires us. The Devil maintains that mankind is driven by self-destruction. The result is a hilarious, sexy, provocative debate parading as a drama.

The play's central joke, of course, is that people like Hell, and so Don Juan is also a grab bag of Shavian wit. One example is this snippet comparing the citizens of Heaven to superficial arts patrons who, bereft of any true appreciation of music, go to the symphony because they think they should. "Well, there is the same thing in Heaven," explains one character. "A number of people sit there in glory, not because they are happy but because they think they owe it to their position to be in Heaven." The speaker, revealing the playwright's Irish heritage, concludes, "They are almost all English."

My quarrel with the production -- at least in the first weekend of the run -- was that Bill Yule, who is sharp and inventive as Marley and the other spirits in A Christmas Carol, wasn't in control of his role as the Devil in Don Juan. As a result at least one of Shaw's great gusts of wordplay fell flat when it should have blown us over, and the debate between Don Juan and the Devil limped along in favor of Don Juan. I'm inclined to believe, however, that Yule will be in sync with his colleagues later in the run.

The advantage of seeing Don Juan together with A Christmas Carol is that you get the best of the repertory experience, itself an opportunity for theater to reveal its secrets. There is really no overlapping thematic element between these two plays. Still, at the New Theatre the design alone (also by de Acha) underscores the compatibility of the shows and comments on the way sets, props, and actors can all be called upon to perform different tricks and tell different stories using the same basic tools.

As they should be in such intimate productions, the actors -- and not the texts -- are the center of interest. All four are cast in such disparate roles they often seem to change bodies along with their different costumes and characters. For example Lisa Morgan, who plays Ana, a new arrival in Hell in Don Juan, also portrays a panting dog, a pickpocket who robs Scrooge's corpse, and Tiny Tim's mother in A Christmas Carol. Likewise David Alt practically blooms before our eyes in Don Juan, playing the title character with a swagger that nearly eclipses all memory of his earlier performance as the milquetoast Victorian accounting clerk Bob Cratchit.

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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