Off The Wall’s One-Man ‘Christmas Carol’ is ‘remarkable’

By December 6, 2018 No Comments

“A remarkable performance of ineffable subtlety.”

Mark Coffin in ‘A Christmas Carol’ (Photo: Heather Mull)

By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic

Ebenezer Scrooge got a bum rap!

He didn’t make people borrow money from him – so why is it a stain on his character when he asks for it back? He doesn’t celebrate the Christmas holiday, so why should he be forced to give money so other people can? You’ve got to admire someone so appalled by easy sentimentality he feels that anyone who says “Merry Christmas should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” (At least that would take care of Bill O’Reilly.) And, if you’re absolutely honest with yourself, you must admit that the post-reformation Scrooge isn’t near as interesting as the pre-.

Or maybe I don’t mean any of that and I’m only pretending because I’ve lost track of the legion of Christmas Carols I’ve had to sit through in my day – be they straight-forward adaptations, political satires, “Musical,” “Lyrical,” or “Uptown” and any mention of the story makes me shake and drop small objects.

A Christmas Carol continues through Dec 13. Carnegie Stage, Carnegie. 724/783-3576.

These days I avoid Christmas Carol when I can but then I read that Off the Wall Productions was bringing in New York-based actor Mark Coffin in a one-man version of this timeless Dickens classic and, so, like it or not, when duty calls …

Coffin conceived this production, co-adapting it with Heidi Mueller Smith who also directs him in the part.

Just to get it out of the way: I can’t say that Coffin and Mueller Smith have made a completely convincing argument as to why this 1843 novella needed to be transmogrified into a one-man show. It doesn’t necessarily illuminate anything Dickens wrote and what with the actor playing all the roles and functioning as a narrator there is a danger of the end product being little more than someone standing onstage and reading you a short story.

There is, in fact, only one reason to justify making this a one-person show and, fortunately, Coffin supplies it – Mark Coffin.

As suggested above I wasn’t maybe in the most receptive move when I took my seat, but in about five minutes Coffin had utterly lured me into this world and I was held spellbound for the remaining intermission-less 85 minutes.

I wish I could tell you what Coffin does which makes him so mesmerizing, but it’s all too mercurial to easily catalogue. I can tell you what he doesn’t do – there’s no showboating, no bombast, no “Master Thespian!” tricks. Coffin rarely raises the volume of his voice beyond conversation level, he doesn’t delight in flourish-filled switches from one character to the next replete with outsized expressions or physicality, he doesn’t bang you over the head with thudding point-making. Instead it all happens on an almost unseen instinctual level, you sense the changes in mood, in place, in character rather than having sign posts planted for you.

This is truly a remarkable performance of ineffable subtlety directed with the same ephemeral handling by Mueller Smith; she knows the precise strengths of her actor and guides and shapes his work with no obvious marks. An added benefit of an actor not getting in the way of his own performance, he’s also not getting in the way of Dickens’ words and this production is a terrific chance to hear much of what Dickens wrote the way he wrote it.

Adrienne Fischer, Madeleine Steineck, Ryan McMasters and Jessie Sedon provide the technical, visual and aural backing to a truly transformative evening – I went in thinking “Bah, humbug” and came out saying “God bless us – everyone!”



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