Shakespeare Tavern’s Christmas Carol brings audiences into the holiday spirit

For his 16th consecutive year, Tony Brown has brought an ensemble of actors together to perform his favorite Christmas story: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Brown has read the play every winter season since the age of 11 when he bought a paperback copy from a book fair, which he still owns. 

While this play is routinely performed around Atlanta and the whole country during December, the Shakespeare Tavern puts a special twist on the performance.

What sets this specific production of the show apart from others is that it is a storyteller production, meaning an ensemble of actors are reading directly from the original tale. 

As the actors read aloud Dickens’ words, other actors are bringing the story to life, acting out scenes and portraying different roles. But the only actor who is cast into only one role is Drew Reeves, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge. 

Reeves has played Scrooge for 15 years at the Shakespeare Tavern and is the longest-running Scrooge in Atlanta. 

“There’s teenagers [for whom] I’ve been a part of their Christmas tradition since they were children,” he said. “That’s very powerful for me.”

While many see Scrooge as a villain for the better part of the show, Reeves sees the connection that the character has with each and every member of the audience.

“Even though people think of Scrooge as a bad guy, looking at him from the inside, the insecurities and brokenness that exist within him are universal because everybody’s got something that is broken about them,” he said. “I know the words so well that images and feelings and emotions and experiences from my own life just randomly come up for me.”

What makes this particular production of “A Christmas Carol” so important to Reeves is the simplicity of the performance.

“I’m very proud of the bare-bones style in which we do it,” he said. “I appreciate all theater and all styles of doing theater, but the fact that part of Dickens’ intent with this [story] was to highlight the plight of the homeless and the downtrodden. I love the fact that we do a very basic version of it because I think it’s true to Dickens’ intent.”

“A Christmas Carol” was published in 1843 as a novella, but was originally intended to be a pamphlet warning London about the cruelty of corporations and business owners.

“It’s meant to be a metaphor for what Charles Dickens was hoping for England, specifically for London,” Brown said. “There was a lot of suffering, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that there were a great many people who were taking advantage of the masses to amass money.”

Dickens’ intention with writing this novella was to have audiences see their fellow humans, including the poor and homeless, as their equal.

“If the Judeo-Christian belief is that we are all created in God’s image, then how could you treat a fellow human as anything but that?,” Rivka Levin, an actor and music director for the show, said. “This whole play is teaching Scrooge how to treat other people as human.”

Levin, who is Jewish, has no problem performing the show with her beliefs. In fact, a rabbi once told her mother that “A Christmas Carol” is one of the most Jewish stories there is.

“The rabbi said, ‘It’s entirely about charity, about giving people the benefit of the doubt and ensuring their dignity is upheld above anything else,’” she said. “‘It’s about being a family. All of the values are absolutely in line with Jewish thinking.’”

Levin grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and, for a particular scene, utilizes her upbringing to further bring the story to life. 

“In order to bring the energy to the scene that I needed, I picture what my mother is doing five minutes before Shabbat starts,” she said. “I even infuse some of my own Jewish life into the onstage world.”

Levin has been doing the show for 15 years and has served as music director for 13. For her, the music is infused into the story and one of the most important elements of the show.

“The name of the book is ‘A Christmas Carol’, and when you look at the book, the chapters are in staves,” she said. “A stave is a bracketed section of music. It’s as if you had a musical paragraph. To extract the music from it would almost be like telling three-fourths of the story that Dickens wrote.”

Traditionally, every show at the Shakespeare Tavern begins with a house speech given by the director or house manager, but this show instead begins with the dimming of the lights and the start of the first song. 

“The first song of the show starts before even a word is spoken. The house speech comes after the first song, and that’s on purpose because we want people to connect and unite with us in the song,” Brown said. “It’s just a matter of learning from one another and from the audience.”

In Levin’s eyes, the music of the show reaches audiences when the powerful message of the text cannot.

“Often, people who keep a bit of a wall up and don’t let the emotional content of the show hit them deep down, I think those people are accessed through music in a way that through text, they have a little bit of defenses up,” she said.

Both the music and the message of the show resonate with the actors, audience members and director. “A Christmas Carol” is not only a holiday treat; it is also an important lesson for younger and older people alike. 

“The power of that redemption story gives a level of hope that, because of Christmas, it’s possible … to have the kind of personal impact on other human beings that matters,” Brown said. “As Fred says, ‘It’s the one time of the year when people think of other people not as other beings on other journeys but as fellow travelers to the grave.’ We’re all in this together, and that reminds us that we need each other, and there’s tremendous power and hope in sharing our lives with one another.”