SPIRITS, UNLIMITED, AT THE TWO RIVER
By TOM CHESEK
The spirits have been restless of late over at Two River Theater, first during October’s psych-out thrill ride “The Charlatan’s Seance,” then in the massive preparations for their upcoming Grand Guignol take on Shakespeare’s bloody and accursed “Macbeth” (going up in January, and co-directed by that devil-imp of magical mischief, Teller).
In these days between, the Two River company has been offering up the world premiere engagement of “The Ghost’s Bargain,” a spirited tale that suggests, (a) Charles Dickens had more than one Christmas Carol loaded in his iPod, and (b) if the folks at TRT have their way, Halloween and Christmas may soon be merging into a sort of extended Ghoultide observance.
Two River’s artistic director Aaron Posner commissioned playwright Laura Eason to adapt the relatively little-known Dickens story “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain” as an alternative to the myriad manifestations of Mr. Scrooge this time of year and as a potential candidate for a homegrown holiday tradition all their own.
Working with director Melissa Kievman, Eason (who created a stage version of “A Tale of Two Cities” for Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf company) workshopped the script at a series of meetings and public readings including a constructive audience Q&A in Red Bank last April. She also telescoped a dozen or so adult characters into five carefully choreographed players, and, it should be pointed out, effected some changes that could have sent old Dickens spinning like a dynamo in his grave.
At first glance, “The Ghost’s Bargain” has an awful lot in common with its sister story in “The Christmas Books.” Still, if “A Christmas Carol” is about the forces that help a cruel and distant man re-enter the mainstream of human existence, then “The Ghost’s Bargain” is almost its mirror image; in which a “kind and generous man” tormented college headmaster Mr. Redlaw (Gregor Paslawsky) is transformed into a cold and callous being devoid of sympathy for others, all because he asked a ghost to remove the “curse” of painful memories from his soul. What’s more, Redlaw becomes a sort of psychic Typhoid Mary, able to remove all sadness (and sympathy) from everyone he meets with the touch of his hand. If you’ve ever wondered how Dickens might have handled “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” look no further.
In her production notes for the show, the playwright maintains that “Dickens was a master observer of humanity…gifted at choosing themes that resonate as strongly today as they did when he first wrote them.” In adapting the master’s 1848 story, Eason made changes big and small; lightening and tightening the narrative in a way that makes a great deal more sense as a performance piece, while losing none of the potency of the tale’s prevailing themes. So, while Charles (and his passionately humanistic voice) is still very much in charge, there’s a good humor here and a playful presentation that helps put the story’s worthy message across.
There’s also a set design, by Susan Zeeman Rogers, that borrows from the world of sports to frame the action within a space resembling a basketball game a fireplace and partial set at each end; a long wooden floor in the middle, and rows of “courtside” seating on either side of the horizontal playing area. Actors pop out of the scenery and dodge each other in busy street scenes, while the audience scans the action like spectators at a tennis match. Come to think of it, the vibe is also a bit like the Houdini’s Escape ride at Great Adventure.
Lead actor Paslawsky is supported by four fellow Equity players (Richard Crawford, William Parry, Anne O’Sullivan and Simon Kendall) who trade off narrator duties while juggling all of the grown-up parts, and a group of eight young Monmouth County performers (including Cristina Medlin of Lincroft, as well as Little Silver natives Charley Johnson and Joe Persico) portray the survival-minded street urchin known only as “Boy,” in addition to the many offspring of the burgeoning Tetterby clan.
Running approximately 75 minutes and presented without intermission in the TRT building’s “black box” Marion Huber performance space, “The Ghost’s Bargain” continues through December 30 with a mix of matinee, evening and school performances Tuesdays through Sundays.
Tickets and scheduling info is online.