Saturday, December 9, 2023

"A Very Good Christmas Carol" by Jeffrey Nolan and Hawken Paul at the Black Forest Inn

Another Christmas Carol, you ask? Yes, but this one's different from the Guthrie's 49th annual production, or even the bawdy English Music Hall version at Open Eye Theatre. Just a few blocks away from the latter, a two-man version of the holiday* classic that relies heavily on audience participation can be seen in the charming event hall at The Black Forest Inn for three more nights, with a few other shows happening around the state. Independently produced by two #TCTheater artists (originally produced and developed by the Northern Light Opera Company in Park Rapids) who wrote, directed, and star in the show, A Very Good Christmas Carol is a fun and interactive retelling of Charles Dickens' familiar story that mostly brings out the comedy and silliness, but not without a bit of the lovely message of community and redemption filtering in. As they say in the beginning of the show, it's not stodgy traditional theater, with a looser and more casual tone to the evening (which is not to say it's unprofessional). The audience (decidedly younger than those at traditional theaters) was having a great time, and it really felt like we were all participating in the storytelling in a convivial way that, despite the seemingly unconventional nature, really is in the spirit of the holiday. You can get your tickets to the remaining Black Forest dates here (and yes, you can get a Bier and bring it into the show), and follow them on Instagram at @verygoodchristmascarol for information on other performances.

Writer/director/performers Hawken Paul and Jeffrey Nolan play a couple of London street urchins named Martin and Edmund, who proceed to tell the story of A Christmas Carol, playing all of the roles, except for those played by audience members. Hawken/Martin plays Scrooge and a few other characters, Jeffrey/Edmund plays Cratchit, all of the ghosts, and more, both actors deftly changing accents and physicality to create new characters. Audience members play Dick Wilkins, Fezziwig party guests, Cratchit children, and Marley. But don't worry, those roles are on a volunteer basis, you won't be pulled up on stage unwillingly (but if you don't want to be part of the show, don't sit in the front row or on the center aisle because you may be talked to and asked questions). It's a risky move - Jeffrey and Hawken are basically doing improv with volunteers who likely have no training or experience with improv. But it works because they're good at taking whatever the volunteer does or doesn't say, and does or doesn't do, and making it funny. So if you like that sort of thing - raise your hand and don't be afraid to say the wrong thing, because there is no wrong thing (trust me, there were lots of weird things said in the show that I saw, that didn't necessarily fit with the story, but it worked).

Martin and Edmund (Hawken Paul and Jeffery Nolan)
(photo credit @verygoodchristmascarol Instagram)
In addition to playing roles, the street urchins also ask for the audience's help in creating sound effects or singing carols (I don't do interactive theater, but I do love a singalong!). They confidently guide us through the story, pulling props and a few accessories out of an old-fashioned trunk like the traveling theater troupe that they are. Various robes for the ghosts, hats for Scrooge, a gong, and a blow-up goose used to hilarious effect (costumes by Anneliese Garner, set and props by Mady Smith and Greg Paul). The Cratchit family scene, with two audience volunteers and both actors playing two roles, is particularly clever and madcap. And there's music and dancing too, with Hawken playing the fiddle for the Fezziwig dancing scene (with lots of volunteers) and accompanying some of the singalongs.

The strength of this production of A Christmas Carol, and what sets it apart from others, is in the participatory storytelling and community feeling of it, which really harkens back to theater and storytelling traditions of old. Kudos to these young artists for creating a show for themselves and doing it in a way that engages audiences and creates a fun casual atmosphere.

*Read about all of the holiday shows I've seen this year here, and listen to the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers holiday preview episode of our podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat here