Spirit of Holidays Past

'A Pickwick Christmas' has brought Dickens to Tucson for 10 years running

The holiday season is full of traditions, especially in Tucson. One particular Tucson holiday institution, now making its 10th annual appearance, is Top Hat Theatre Club's A Pickwick Christmas.

Written and performed by Top Hat's producing director, James Gooden, the show is adapted from the three Christmas chapters in Charles Dickens' first novel, The Pickwick Papers.

We live in an age where "everything has to be at our beck and call, and our cell phone can't be too far from our grasp," Gooden observes, explaining the play's longevity. "I think there's a real desire to balance out some of the instant stuff (with) things that are thoughtful, and literary, and historical."

Like most of Dickens' work, The Pickwick Papers was initially published serially, with 19 chapters appearing over 20 months in 1836 and 1837. Each chapter recounts the loosely related misadventures of Mr. Samuel Pickwick and his friends in the Pickwick Club.

"It's an opportunity for Dickens to comment on society at the time," says Gooden. "Pickwick and his friends travel around and have adventures that make them bump into the legal system, the political system."

In the middle of the book are the Christmas chapters, in which Pickwick accepts an invitation to spend the holiday at a friend's country estate.

That portion of the book has long been a favorite of Gooden's, and he made it his own Christmas tradition to re-read it each year. That private enjoyment gradually evolved into reading passages at holiday gatherings and eventually into the dramatic interpretation played out on the stage.

"It just seemed like a natural progression," he says. "I boiled it all down and made a script of it. ... I play all the characters—and there are about 15 of them."

Drawing upon the art of storytelling rather than special effects, Gooden switches between characters with changes in voice and posture, quite a feat when several characters are in conversation with each other.

Gooden enjoys the challenge, giving Pickwick's friend Mr. Tupman a high falsetto, for example, or using a Marilyn Monroe voice to portray a young woman.

But his favorite character is Mr. Pickwick himself.

"He wants to know everything about everything," Gooden explains. "But he's also very gullible. He believes people at their face value and is very trusting. He gets himself into scrapes, but I think that's the wonderful thing about him, that he is so open to the experience of life."

That makes Pickwick the polar opposite of Dickens' better-known Christmas perennial, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge. Gooden found inspiration for A Pickwick Christmas in an audio version of A Christmas Carol performed solo by actor Patrick Stewart.

"I guess I drew on that," he says, "seeing what the possibilities were by changing your voice."

Perhaps because it has had less exposure, or perhaps because it happily embraces its own simplicity, A Pickwick Christmas seems to come from a more innocent age than its more popular counterpart.

Here, the stage is very simple: chairs, tables and a backdrop. Yet Gooden's skill at performance transforms these props into a coach, a stone wall in the country, or a kitchen with a roaring fireplace. Occasionally, he gets some help from the audience. What coach ride can be accomplished, for example, without a driver, a footman and, of course, a couple of horses?

Audience participation is called for even more often in the singing of carols, which are sprinkled liberally through the script. Gooden has carefully chosen carols that would have been sung in Dickens' England, including "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Good King Wenceslas."

The carol "I Saw Three Ships," in particular, "is very English," Gooden says. "England being a maritime nation, Christmas and ocean-going vessels kind of fit naturally."

Gooden points out, a little slyly, that such attention to detail is not always paid in other productions: "In Patrick Stewart's Christmas Carol, he uses 'The First Noel,'" Gooden says, noting that "The First Noel" is a French carol that would not have been sung in the nationalistic England of the day.

The same goes for the German "Silent Night.''

"You would never hear 'Silent Night' in Dickensian England," Gooden says.

One change to this year's production is its location: Gooden will be performing his show at the new theater space created by Arid Rose Theater on West Grant Road. He had staged it at his Top Hat Theatre Club in recent years, but he moved his company out of its home at Fort Lowell and Country Club roads in early November.

It was a "lot of hard work" to maintain a regular venue once the economy began struggling, he says. He expects that the troupe will find spaces to perform in as needed.

"I think it's going to continue in a gypsy fashion for now," Gooden says of Top Hat, "but it's all fairly new, so we don't know what the future of the company will be."

For the time being, Gooden is making himself at home on a new stage, and judging by the additional performances he's added to the schedule, it appears that his audience is welcoming him back.

"I think that Christmas, specifically, is a place where Dickens thrives," Gooden says. The same could be said for Mr. Pickwick, and for Mr. Gooden.

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