“Ring out the old year, ring in the new, ring-a-ding-ding,” says Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik with weary resignation near the end of The Apartment (still my favorite holiday film, not that you asked). Two streaming shows give us similar lenses for viewing the transition from hellscape to (vaguely) hopeful as this year winds down.
Remy Bumppo first presented artistic director Nick Sandys‘s one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens‘s 1844 novella in 2012, with an encore presentation in 2013. I didn’t see it live, but the streaming virtual production Bumppo’s offering this season is a humdinger. (Sandys announced this week that he is stepping aside as artistic director in the new year; no successor has been named yet.)
Far less popular than A Christmas Carol, which was published a year earlier, The Chimes shares some elements—notably in the way the narrative takes its protagonist, Toby “Trotty” Veck, on a supernatural journey through a possibly dismal future, complete with poverty and heartlessness that is, well, Dickensian.
The primary difference between The Chimes and its predecessor is that Trotty, unlike Scrooge, isn’t a cold person, except in the literal sense. (When we first meet him, he’s shivering outside a church, waiting for someone to hire him as a “porter,” or messenger.) But there are messages he carries within himself that he can never unload, courtesy of a society that criminalizes poverty and gaslights the poor into thinking that their lot in life is a result of their inherent evil, rather than rapacious capitalism and the cruelty of the rancid upper crust.
It takes the “goblins” present in the majestic old church bells to show him what his sweet daughter Meg’s life would be like without him (shades of George Bailey), and how easily even the best people can be driven to desperation when there is absolutely no safety net provided.
Sandys performs on-camera, dressed in a frock coat and cravat in front of a cheery fireplace in the persona of Charles Dickens, reading (as the author himself did in his popular one-man presentations) from pages on a music stand. At the outset, he speaks with high hopes of this new holiday show, “which may well knock that other Christmas tale out of the field.”
The Chimes doesn’t have the same sense of magic inherent to it that A Christmas Carol does, but it’s an often-enchanting show nonetheless. We hear the sonorous power of the chime/goblins in the soundscape, and Sandys’s performance is vocally nimble and endearing—he knows how to slice the Dickens ham into digestible portions, and goes big (including extreme from-below close-ups) when embodying various aldermen and other odious oligarchs. Yet he also knows that the quiet moments of epiphany don’t need to be oversold. (Ian Frank‘s video editing aids the shifts in narrative tone with understated effectiveness.)
Trotty doesn’t have as far to go to save himself as Scrooge, and the spirit guides aren’t personified as fully as in That Other Christmas Tale, which makes the story a bit muted by comparison. However, any tale that makes the case that none of us is born bad, and that our salvation lies in our duty to watch out for each other with empathy and kindness, has particular heft this year. And if you’re tired of Scrooge, you’ll find a welcome and loyal new holiday friend in Trotty.
I Hate It Here: Stories from the End of the Old World
Ike Holter has been one of Chicago’s most prolific playwrights for years, winning piles of plaudits and awards for his seven-play “Rightlynd” saga about a fictional Chicago ward that embodies all the best and worst of our city.
He’s also created several other works, some of which have taken their own turns into the supernatural. 2018’s The Light Fantastic with Jackalope was a trippy tale of good and evil in a small Indiana town. More recently, during the shutdown, he’s worked his magic in radio dramas; Steep Theatre’s production of Holter’s Moony is 25 minutes of atmospheric Twilight Zone strangeness in your ear, set in a “nice big small town” where a woman in the custody of the local constabulary claims to come from a world where police don’t exist.
But Holter’s latest foray into radio theater doesn’t require supernatural leavening. Reality has been weird enough this year, and in I Hate It Here: Stories from the End of the Old World, Holter’s created a cunning radio-drama equivalent of a mixtape, bookended by songs and built out of short vignettes inspired by this year of pandemic and protest.
The opening of this show (presented in a free stream courtesy of Washington D.C.’s Studio Theatre, featuring a cast heavy on Chicago actors) is a cacophony of voices reflecting on the toll these times have taken. “I am planning out my own death better than vacations I take, and it’s insane,” one woman cries.
Some of the scenes are satiric, as in the owner of a fast-food chicken restaurant (Gabe Ruiz) laying out the rules for his employees. “Sassiness will not be tolerated. Sassy is showing up talking about your health,” he declares. A middle-aged woman (Jennifer Mendenhall) explains that she and her husband decided to treat social distancing as an exercise in “glamping,” only to find themselves out on an emotional and financial ledge.
A scene set at a wedding reception between a white woman (Mendenhall) and a young Black man (Jason Wright) shines a pitiless light on how internalized racism guides even those who believe they are standing up for Black Lives Matter. Later, a scene about a trio of friends and activists who are celebrating the installation of a stop sign at a dangerous intersection turns into an argument about incrementalism vs. radical tactics, and a gutting exploration of the plain old exhaustion and rage that comes from spinning your wheels in the ceaseless and thankless battle for justice. (Sydney Charles, Tony Santiago, and Ruiz beautifully embody the tensions even long-time friends carry among themselves.)
Yet as with Dickens’s Trotty, Holter’s protagonists seem to find something to hold onto. Near the end, Kirsten Fitzgerald (artistic director of A Red Orchid Theatre) delivers a quietly magnificent monologue as a woman who has lost her dog, her mother, her brother, and her job in the last year. Yet she notes that in the middle of everything, she started taking walks, and is up to ten miles a day.
“Life doesn’t stop just because everything you know has ended,” she says. “If you don’t move on with it, it runs you over and then you’re even more mad because you never had a chance to get over the first time it hit you.”
That’s about as good a survival guide as we can hope for at the end of this decidedly hateful year, and if you’d prefer to get your hard-luck lessons and dashes of holiday hope sans the Dickens trappings, Holter’s piece (which he also directs) is a great stocking stuffer of truth, grit, and fuck-it-all-let’s-keep-moving hope. v