Pulling Strings

Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol has been staged in a variety of different ways: childishly funny, humbly poignant, brightly extravagant, and maddeningly musical, to name just a few. The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater has broken the mold here, shedding a refreshingly original light on this tired tale through a bilingual puppet show called A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan, playing at the Jan Hus Playhouse. Vit Horejs, puppet master and founder of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater, has performed all over the world, finally emigrating from his native Prague to Manhattan, where, he says, his weary puppets are looking for a home. Jan Hus Playhouse is the perfect place for them to rest their strings; the intimate little theater is located in the heart of a multi-cultural, predominantly Czech neighborhood between First and Second Avenues. Though the play is told in English, the melodies are sung in Czech, Hebrew, and Swahili. Horejs asks you to imagine that this story is being told to you "not by an English serial novelist but by your Czech grandmother."

Imagining this is difficult, given the sarcastic, wry sense of humor Horejs injects into his story with a precision you sense only he could perfect. His Scrooge is not the grimacing, evil man in need of a change that other shows portray him as, which is just as well, considering this comical little Scrooge puppet is too cute to be visually menacing. In this version he is more of a modern-day Seinfeld; sarcastic and self-assured, not given to common niceties or social graces. His transformation here seems to be less about a conflicted man overcoming his wicked ways than a jaded New Yorker unlocking his inner tourist.

Horejs uses the adorable, colorful puppets to spellbind the children while shocking the adults with jokes aimed way over the little ones' heads. At a Christmas party, a bearded puppet becomes so drunk that he literally falls off the stage. Another uses his strings to flirt with a female, grinding his wooden body against hers before dragging her off to watch dirty videos behind the curtain. The best jokes were those that played to all ages, most notably one where Bob Cratchit passionately throws his wife onto the kitchen table to make out next to their pathetic excuse for a Christmas goose. The children in the audience squealed, "Eeew, kissing," while their parents chuckled at the other implications.

The Cratchit Christmas scene, usually aimed at giving the audience a somber look at an impoverished family making the best of their meager surroundings, garners the biggest laughs in Horejs's retelling. The younger children are obnoxious, the eldest daughter plays embarrassingly juvenile jokes, a kitten picks inopportune moments to mew its thoughts, and Mrs. Cratchit goes on a rant that would make a sailor blush when describing their "benefactor" Scrooge. Tiny Tim, of course, declares it the best Christmas he's ever had before hobbling off on his crutches.

Needless to say, Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan is not your typical Christmas show, but those planning to attend a Czechoslovakian puppet show with bilingual holiday songs are most likely expecting something different. Aside from Horejs's unconventional take on the plot, he infuses into the mix a bilingual soundtrack of holiday songs and icons from other religious celebrations

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