nytheatre.com review by Josephine Cashman
December 3, 2005
Presented by Firebrand Theatre Company, The Dickens is an unusual Christmas tale about evil and redemption, swaggering gunslingers and pregnant prostitutes. Written by Michael Scott-Price and directed by Jaime Robert Carrillo, the play strives for comedy, but the result is an uneven but unsettling homage to the Old West with an unexpected holiday-spiritual twist.
Set in a lawless 1880s saloon in Nevada on Christmas Eve, The Dickens puts six of the world's most criminal souls together, where they bicker, drink Dead Hombre, play poker, and find themselves in the presence of the sinister Lightbearer, the Devil in a not-so-subtle disguise. It seems that every Christmas the Devil gives a Christmas present to God. Sadly, it is never explained why Lightbearer is in such a Christmas State of Mind, which would have been an intriguing idea to explore.
Bill Pierce's set design is marvelous—he truly brings to life a rough and tumble saloon that's seen one too many brawls. The sound design by Matt O'Hare is also impressive, adding to the atmosphere of depravity. Kit Stolen's costumes and Chris Manning's lighting help complete the air of Old West authenticity—I almost expected Clint Eastwood to strut through the saloon doors and onto the stage.
The cast give solid and entertaining performances as the bad apples. Jorge Luis Casanova-Alvarez's portrayal of Father Island, a dissipated, suicidal priest who's lost his faith, is especially effective and discomfiting. Rich Renner is amusing as the peculiar, fastidious, and weaselly Undertaker who’s taken over the saloon, wiping down the tables even as he is hiding under them. Jessica Pagan’s Lightbearer is astonishingly chilling with her slow, deliberate movements and a deep, grim voice that’s in striking contrast to the sharp trebles and petulant whines of the other misfits at the bar. She’s a bit of an old-school Halloween Monster, relishing her chance to deliver one hell of a smackdown. The rest of the ensemble rallies around them and creates an interesting vision of the Old West.
Billed as a comedy, the show is more whimsical that comic, and while it makes for a pleasant Christmas fable, it is not quite as funny or disconcerting as it mght have been. Perhaps the play would have been served better if the comic elements had been played up more. Some of the criminals seem more lost than evil, more pathetic than malicious. The director seems more intent on delivering the message than letting the story speak for itself, and the play suffers as a consequence: when Lightbearer offered his chosen villains a choice, there was never any suspense as to what they would decide. They may have “the dickens” scared out of them, but they never seem as unredeemable as they are purported to be.
Still, the play is a lively addition to the Christmas canon, and Firebrand Theory has a visually beautiful, quirky, and earnestly delivered play.