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A CurtainUp Review
A Child's Christmas in Wales
In Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales, co-created and adapted for the stage by Charles McMahon, and designed and directed by Sebastienne Mundheim, four actors perform selected details of a recitation with unhurried dance-like moves, pantomime, and prop manipulation. Among the show's many mixed scale props are the houses, puppets including a big cat and large fishes, and a little fire engine, a small model of a room, and an ingenious coloring book page. Yards of fabric cleverly become smoke, but mittens, hat and scarf are made of diaphanous material where warm wool is wanted. It's as if each of these separate design projects took on its own life, and thus remains abstracted and disparate in a piecemeal production that never pulls together into a coherent whole. This show may be intended to look like a workshop in make-believe rather than a conventional presentation.
I waited for an atmospheric lighting trick or whatever miracle it would take to transform the mostly flat-lighted set into a space of wonder, and infuse the stage with life. But it never came. Eventually, bottles are lighted and just momentarily they shimmer like snow globe lanterns, but the general lighting doesn't dim down enough to allow the impact of their much needed effect.
There are some wonderful moments. One of my favorite parts of the story makes its point simply, with just actors and attitude, and no props other than the candy cigarettes dangling from their mouths. The narrator, talking about the category of "useless presents" tells of receiving a packet of cigarettes: "You put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it."
Robert Kaplowitz's sound design supports the narrative with an array of well selected and admirably timed noises as well as lovely snatches of original music.
Innovative theater that takes chances is a great thing. But sometimes we can see that choices made don't work. Adults acting like children is not charming. And Dylan Thomas's work really isn't a children's story, but a mature, droll, and warm trip down a Welsh memory lane. This production's exploratory, extemporaneous take is evidently at its secret heart more about evoking memory in general than building and sustaining the mood of a boy's long ago snowy Welsh Christmases.
Gender-blind casting is a very good thing, except when it isn't. This fiction-enhanced show-and-tell remembrance of a boyhood would be better served with a grown man doing the telling and a boy doing the showing. But that would require a children's cast, which might be one reason why this story hasn't been brought to the stage until now. Not to take anything away from Geneviève Perrier, a wonderful performer with a clear voice and fluid acting skills, but having a woman narrator perform as a woman and then as a boy, a work that was written to be a man's telling of a boy's tale doesn't admit the deep resonance of the story.
All in all, despite all the creations and fine custom-made objects that went into this production, it comes up short on magic partly due to the cluttered disarray of the set and the awkwardness of grown up actors cutely playing children. It never gathers the accumulating elegiac quality of Dylan Thomas's narrative. Although in his 1952 recording he sounds like he may have been half in the bag, his immense charm imbues his story with a rich glow that this production hasn't been able to attain. Those who have known and loved the story and the famous recording may be disappointed with the Lantern production. Still, audience members unfamiliar with Dylan Thomas's tale are more likely to find joy in it.