Sunday, December 25, 2011

Blake Montgomery’s Charles Dickens Scintillates

Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs A Christmas Carol. Again.


I have seen lots of theater this holiday season that ranges from the absurd that is barely a cut above the amateur to the honed professionalism of actors well-versed in their art and craft. There were two that stand out in my memory as “best of season” and both are one-man presentations. Earlier, I reviewed The Sanaland Diaries at Wandering Through Chicago's Arts and Culture: Murder on the North Pole Express. Yesterday, as a capstone to my Christmas theater travels, I watched the last performance of Blake Montgomery’s realization of what it must have been like for Charles Dickens to repeatedly present his annual reading of what is perhaps the best-loved of all Christmas novels, A Christmas Carol.

I am familiar with Montgomery’s style of theater development; it is an organic method that starts with a story and then attempts to tell that story on the stage. In the process a lot of discovery takes place, a lot of questions are asked and a lot of questions are answered. The result is always something that departs from the original words of the story’s originator and morphs into a uniquely Blake Montgomery vision of events and, most significantly, characters.

This is theater for audiences that enjoy thinking; it is not theater for the intellectually immature. If you need to be taken by the hand, have every nuance explained and made explicit then you’ll probably not find a great deal to make you comfortable in one of Montgomery’s Building Stage productions. On the other hand, if you enjoy looking into the hearts and minds of “real” people (whether fictional or factual) then Montgomery is your man. I don’t mean to suggest that a Ph.D. in philosophy or psychology is a prerequisite to enjoying a Blake Montgomery creation. To the contrary, ordinary living will provide you with sufficient tools to understand and appreciate what’s going on during the performance. However, if you’re used to “multitasking” and sending and receiving texts throughout your day; if you’re essentially unfocused in your activities; if your attention span is something bordering thirty seconds; if your mind runs in long strings of abbreviations like “BFF,” or “WTF” or any number of countless other shortcuts now in vogue, you’ll probably have a hard time becoming sufficiently involved to enjoy what Montgomery serves up in the way of in-depth and nuanced development. [Aside: Current evidence refutes the notion that humans are capable of “multitasking.” The reverse seems to be the case and to attempt to “multitask” is to ensure output that is both lower in quality and longer in development.]

The production itself is refreshingly unique. The front of the program announces, “Tea. Biscuits. Spiritual Terror.” The scenic design of Pamela Maurer is a wonder. You enter a Victorian drawing room through a stately Victorian front door. (To me it is nothing short of miraculous how Montgomery’s sets always appear to be “the real thing” and not just a set.) Mr. Dickens is already serving tea with biscuits and other goodies. He invites the audience to enjoy a cup of tea and a biscuit or scone. Once everyone is settled in and quietly sipping their tea Mr. Dickens attempts to avoid yet another telling of A Christmas Carol but is thwarted repeatedly by a poltergeist, apparently also a part of Lighting Designer Matthew Gawryk’s plan, with some skill at operating a modern theatrical light board. Eventually, Mr. Dickens capitulates and the story is retold, making this reading the 159th annual reading for the recalcitrant Mr. Dickens. Montgomery starts off with a convincing British dialect that he maintains throughout the entire production. Montgomery’s skills with words and Izumi Inaba’s convincing costume immediately convey us back to Victorian England for an evening in a world we can only create in our imaginations.

Reading accounts of the life of Charles Dickens one is struck by the extremes he experienced in all directions. His childhood was marked by periods of extreme poverty and unhappiness, yet as an accomplished, wealthy and famous—even adored—writer he sailed over the heads of his peers surely and easily. Despite his occupation being “writer,” he was perhaps best known in his later years as a public figure and performer. Indeed, his acting skills were prodigious and evident at an early age. This combined with his nearly occult ability to read and describe characters, made his literary and stage efforts an unparalleled experience for his fans world-wide.

It is the stage presence of Dickens that Blake Montgomery captures so effectively in this Building Stage Production. Dickens is the charming and polite host, entertaining his audience; Dickens is the humorous, sometimes silly author connecting with his adoring fans; Dickens is the profoundly dramatic portrayer of some of mankind’s deepest fears and self-doubt. Montgomery captures all of this with such apparent ease that in the tradition of all great impersonations the audience forgets that they are, as Montgomery notes, “in a black-box theater in Chicago’s West industrial corridor.”  They are in a drawing room, with Charles Dickens, who is recreating as only Dickens can amazing characters that populate his novel.

Montgomery does not fail to explore Dickens’s protagonist in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge. During the exposition of the Dickens story we get glimpses of Scrooge’s early life, not surprisingly different from some of Dickens’s own early experiences. Montgomery deftly becomes Scrooge and each of the four ghosts who visit the miserly Scrooge before his rebirth and epiphany.  We suddenly realize, along with Scrooge, that despite a life of hoarding there are still vestiges of humanity in the old miser that only await the correct stimulus to reawaken.

This complexity is nothing short of marvelous; Blake Montgomery becomes Charles Dickens to the point where we are no longer able to distinguish between Montgomery and Dickens. Then Dickens becomes Scrooge and we explore the mind of Scrooge and his four apparitions through the lens of Dickens. The effect is stunning and an example of the maturing style and ability of The Building Stage’s Artistic Director, Blake Montgomery.

As for the story that Charles Dickens penned, we already know how that story concludes; we understand the twists and turns it takes. What is important here is neither the story nor the conclusion; what is important is the journey we take with Blake Montgomery as our guide to travel through familiar ground and learn new insights, experience new emotions and depart with an increased understanding of one of the great literary geniuses of the 19th century and the role he played in the artistic parade of Western Civilization.
I cannot imagine a better capstone for my holiday theater going than The Building Stage’s production of Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs A Christmas Carol. Again. Let’s hope that Montgomery decides to present the 160th annual reading in December of 2012. If he does, don’t fail to see it. It may just become one of your own cherished holiday traditions.

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