A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Chicago TheatreWorks, at Raven Theatre. This charming children’s Christmas Carol pares down the timeless tale to 50 minutes and two very active actors. Surprisingly little gets lost in the compression; the action neatly suggests the unseen characters, and the busy players don and doff their delightful costumes and wigs (by Michele Siler) so rapidly that the cast seems three times bigger than it is.
Inviting children’s participation, director James Leagre (who also plays Scrooge) knows when and how to enlist their massive make-believe. Whenever the word “Christmas” is mentioned, for instance, the audience is encouraged to sing “Fa la la la la,” which increasingly infuriates the curmudgeonly Scrooge. Selected kids are given costumes and asked to play certain characters: Ebenezer’s sister Fanny, Peter Cratchit, the young Scrooge’s one friend. In ingenious less-is-more touches, Marley, eerily lit by a flashlight, appears through a scrim of a wall painting, the shroud of the third ghost opens up to reveal Scrooge’s grave, and Patty Makatura’s colorful set, resembling a giant pop-up book, is decorated with lines from Dickens.
The most solid illusion here is Leagre’s comical, crusty Scrooge, abetted by the versatile John Harrell as the entire supporting cast, including Bob Cratchit, Mr. Fezziwig, and all three (well-distinguished) ghosts. Most important, by the time Scrooge learns from his mistakes, the kids have learned something too.