We as a people have a strange habit of neutering our fiercest holiday fables. Left to our own devices, we forget that It's a Wonderful Life is a story about attempted suicide, and that Dickens' A Christmas Carol lobs more socialist word-bombs than Abbie Hoffman lobbed in his lifetime. Instead, we ghettoize these as "cute" tales, spurring theater companies and the producers of TV-movie remakes to burlesque them even further all in search of that new wrinkle that will hold our increasingly elusive attention.
Playwright Mark Brown's The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge now enjoying its world-premiere run after a few years in development at the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival performs the marvelous feat of finding that new wrinkle yet exploring it in a way that pays proper respect to the source material. Set in a courtroom one year after the events of Dickens' story (and letting the Practice-esque legal volleying flow logically from there), the play is slick holiday entertainment that doesn't scrimp on the literary gravitas. Amateur adapters pay heed: Here's how to have fun with a classic without making fun of it.
The pitch is simplicity in itself. Having seemingly reverted to his crotchety, pre-redemption self, Scrooge (Philip Nolen) is suing the ghosts for a litany of offenses they committed against his person one fateful Christmas Eve, including kidnapping, slander and attempted murder. A preening, dandyish defense attorney named Rothschild (Jeff Marlow) calls a procession of witnesses to testify on the spirits' behalf thus allowing playwright Brown to revisit the fantastical events in order and with supreme deconstructionist wit. (Just what do those spectral slackers do on the remaining 364 days of the year, anyway?) Yet little of the story's emotional impact has been sacrificed. Great gobs of the original text are here, their shimmering prose and accusatory tone perfect fits for the courtroom setting. (Not even Vincent Bugliosi could wrangle a summation line as damning as Dickens' "Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.")
Director Arlen Bensen enhances the verbal jousting with the right amount of physical razzle-dazzle a blast of spooky fog here, a flutter of falling leaves there. The ascension of Marley's ghost (J.D. Sutton) to the witness stand is a moment of trap-door magic that carries all the appropriate connotations of a visitation from Hell.
Standout characterizations include Timothy Williams' turn as nephew Fred (endearingly overimpressed with his own capacity to make merry) and Sarah Hankins' rapid-fire channeling of the Ghost of Christmas Past, Fan and Belle (performed in unbroken succession). Nolen's Scrooge is an expectedly derisive treat, though Bensen's staging keeps the actor's facial reactions obscured for most of Act One at least to those of us seated in the center-stage "gallery" area. We might like to see him turn around a few more times in reptilian disgust, as he did in the play's previous incarnation: a workshop reading at last year's PlayFest festival.
In a more substantial change from the PlayFest performance, the role of Rothschild has evolved from the soulful Atticus Finch-type that actor Rus Blackwell played and into a sort of 19th-century Jewish Johnnie Cochran. He's no longer as attractive a presence, but it's almost just as well, given that the change focuses more of our attention on the consistently droll testimony taking place before our eyes and ears. The crux of that testimony remains the timeless lesson that the well-being of mankind is everyone's business; this Trial establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that it can be a seriously funny business as well.