A Christmas Carol Smackdown! Olney Theatre vs. Keegan Theatre
A Christmas Carol is like crack to theater companies: do it every year or not at all, but after your first hit, you’re hooked on that sweet holiday revenue. No other play can rake in the kind of cash to pay for the rest of your season, which is why this year we have a half dozen versions being staged around the metro area. Ford’s is the biggest, but you have your pick of many less traditional versions, including Faction of Fools’ Commedia Christmas Carol and MetroStage’s Broadway Christmas Carol.
City Paper readers are savvy shoppers who value consumer choice, as evinced by the variety of escort services that advertise in our back pages. So every year, we offer a comparison of one over-performed Christmas standard. The tradition began with Messiah Smackdown!, followed by Choral Christmas Smackdown!, and now continues with two interpretations of Charles Dickens’ morality tale, Keegan Theatre’s Hibernian-themed An Irish Carol, and Olney Theatre’s one man show, titled simply A Christmas Carol. Let’s see how they stack up.
Authenticity: Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as a novella, not a play. Subsequent staged versions have overtaken the original’s popularity, though, probably by downplaying Dickens’ whole proletarian-degradation-in-England’s-Satanic-mills element, and playing up the lovable-old-miser-Mr.-Scrooge element. Thus Olney Theatre’s version, a staged narration reproduced almost entirely verbatim from the novella, is about as close as you’ll get to the original without having to actually, you know, read a book. Point: Olney
Cultural Stereotyping: Keegan’s take on Dickens is, of course, uniquely Irish, so the whole thing is set in—where else?—a pub. Its Scrooge is the pub’s bitter, misanthropic owner who yells at his customers between shots of whiskey, as they wistfully reminisce about bar brawls. Though there’s some nice social commentary on the exploitation of immigrant workers, with Cratchit recast as an abused Polish bartender. Hey, some things are universal. Point: Keegan
Family Friendliness: Keegan’s Scrooge, David, is a “miserable shit” who proclaims he’s “got better things to think about than fucking turkey fucking dinner.” Keegan’s production has many more colorful expressions of humbug, as well as some things whose meanings I can't decipher, but sound dirty (“getting his hole”), which may be inappropriate for the wee ones. Point: Olney
Reverence: On the other hand, Keegan’s barflies do invoke the name of Jesus (or rather, “Jaisus”) with much greater frequency. Point: Keegan
Acting: Minor flubs aside, Keegan’s cast of high- and low-functioning alcoholics is well-acted, if not entirely likeable. Kevin Adams is terrific as David/Scrooge, whose turn at the end is genuinely moving despite everyone’s familiarity with the story. However no single performance can compare with Olney’s Paul Morella, who portrays an astonishing 40-odd characters through vocal inflection, facial expression and hand gestures, without ever changing costume. Simply memorizing a 90-minute monologue is a feat in itself; delivering it as a convincing dialogue is testament to either superb storytelling skills or dissociative identity disorder. Final point and winner: Olney
Olney Theatre’s A Christmas Carol continues through Dec. 30 at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md. $25. (301) 924-3400. Keegan Theatre’s An Irish Carol continues through Dec. 31 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW DC. $30-$35. (703) 892-0202.