Czech out this mitteleuropean ‘Christmas Carol’

Czech out this mitteleuropean ‘Christmas Carol’
Photo by Jonathan Slaff

In the Hollywood classic, “Sunset Boulevard,” a great dramatic moment comes when the faded silent movie star Norma Desmond is reminded that she used to be a big celebrity.

“I am still big,” she proclaims. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

I was reminded of this rejoinder while watching the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater’s foolishly titled, “A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa (Happy Ramadan),” at the ClockWorks Puppet Theater.

This flawed, inelegantly puppeted production brought to mind this thought: puppetry is still big — it’s the puppet productions that have gotten small.

The century-old wooden marionettes are certainly beautiful, but the company made a disastrous choice of breaking the sacred fifth wall of puppet theater by having puppetmaster Vit Horejs and two supporting singers occupy prime space on the already too-small stage. The result is that the marionettes end up looking tiny compared to the mammoth Horejs as he shuffles between a rack of puppets and a tiny theater-within-a-theater on stage left.

Most of the action is presented in this small venue, with Horejs hovering above, never invisible and always distracting (his craggly bare feet could alone be the subect of a lengthy discourse on the importance of foot care).

Worse, Horejs recites the Dickensian dialogue as if reading a phone book — and not a particularly interesting passage. Even when multiple characters are on stage, he makes no effort to distinguish his voices so that young kids can understand who is speaking. He rushes. He shambles. He mumbles. And in an effort to “update” this classic, he also makes bad jokes, including one about the Bush administration that made no sense and another about homoerotic stirrings between Scrooge and Bob Crachit.

At various times, Horejs even dropped puppets, which made a sickening bang as they hit the stage. As the nation’s foremost authority on the treatment of marionettes, I was appalled.

The Czech-American maestro was ably aided by two beautiful and rapturous singers, who belt out arias in English, Czech, Hebrew and even Swahili that broaden the appeal of this multi-cultural holiday story. They add a necessary element of mirth, but can’t save the day.

ClockWorks Puppet Theater has shown great promise in prior productions. But this “Christmas Carol” is a huge step back for marionette theater, for artistry and, indeed, for human-puppet relations.

“A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa (Happy Ramadan),” at ClockWorks Puppet Theater [196 Columbia St. between Sackett and Degraw streets in the Columbia Street Waterfront District, (212) 868-4444], through Jan. 1. Tickets $20 (kids, $12).

Reach columnist Thurston Dooley III at [email protected].