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THEATER REVIEW A Dickens Carol
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-12-06

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Playwright: Ned Crowley

At: Oak Park Festival Theatre at the Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St., Oak Park. Tickets: $30. Runs through: Dec. 24

"Dickens was dead, to begin with," proclaims the conductor employed by London's South Eastern Railway—and yes, you heard that correctly.

It's said that drowning victims see their lives flash before their eyes, so when, at 9:39 p.m. on Christmas Eve in 1842, a faulty bridge-crossing signal sends the train plummeting into the icy depths of the Kent River and pinning Charles Dickens beneath a steel grate, his concussion triggers a series of disturbing visions. At least it does in Ned Crowley's re-imagining of the famous story that our celebrated passenger is not yet aware that he will write.

The Dickens we meet, you see, has been chafing under the demands of his readers and publishers to write more cozies like Pickwick Papers. As a result, the author who once championed social reforms to ease the plight of the poor has withdrawn, Scrooge-like, into his work, to the exclusion of his wife and family. Having banished his fellow travelers from his first-class compartment, our acerbic wordsmith now finds himself facing an ignoble end, but for the intervention of his early muse, William Shakespeare, and the guidance of three spirits who confront him with the personal experiences making him the man he is today—a tour that encompasses such Victorian horrors as child-labor, debtors prisons, Bedlam, and infants afflicted with crippling diseases.

Even a "classic" fable, once its copyright expires, becomes fair game for literary embellishment. What distinguishes Crowley's narrative from the usual makeovers promulgated by Caroler-wannabes is the scholarly acumen reflected in its composition—industry forging a parallel universe described in language conflating that of the familiar tale with the events providing the inspiration therefor. For example, Dickens is fond of saying "Poppycock!" but upon hearing someone utter "Humbug," declares that he will adopt it for the misanthropic protagonist of his upcoming novella.

There are abundant chuckles to be mined from Crowley's cheeky sleight-of-diction, but while director Kevin Theis makes no attempt to stifle them, neither does he allow them to escalate into guffaws. The cast and technical team assembled for this world premiere production likewise walk the line between parody and homage with never a misstep to manufacture a fantasy brimming with both the comfort of recognition and the joy of discovery.


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