Saturday, December 25, 2021

Dark Shadows for the Holidays is a Triumph. So there.

There are times when an idea moves beyond the intention and becomes an unexpected wonder. Dark Shadows fans enjoyed just that in Richard Halpern and Ansel Faraj’s recent Zoom production of A Christmas Carol, which ‘aired’ on December 19. Not only did the producers bring us an adaptation of Orson Welles’ radio play, but David Henesy and Alexandra Moltke Isles returned to join the ensemble. You probably know that. You probably also know that their return should have been the story. If it had been limited to that, it would have been a successful moment in history, but a failure as a drama. And there is not one unsuccessful second in this production.

At its very marrow, this production of a Christmas Carol is the most artistically successful follow-up to Dark Shadows since the show went off the air. The budget was not vast. But that doesn’t matter. Did it ever? Because fans of the show don’t necessarily want more Dark Shadows from our Dark Shadows. We want more of the ensemble. And we want to see them given the chance to show us and the world why we love them. This was that opportunity. The script is a strong and economical distillation of the story, supporting the actors yet staying out of their way. I can’t necessarily say that for other Dark Shadows productions. And while it’s not a Dark Shadows production, it is, resoundingly.

As wacky and perfunctory as the project could have been, it manages, above all else, to be tasteful in its risks, with everyone participating. It’s improvised and compromised around the edges, and that lets us see what the actors bring to the execution via quirky and personal contributions. From wonky top hats, cozy scarves and appropriately fire engine-red reading glasses to David Selby‘s tieless tuxedo, the visual world of this show intersects immediacy and literacy and, most prized of all, fun.

I mean, there is an inherent ridiculousness to any production via zoom. It’s hard to bring James Tyrone to life if it looks like Peter Brady is about to appear in the square next-door to announce that his voice has changed. But that kind of visual language is used with discretion and strategy by Ansel Faraj. He trades out widescreen oomph for spectacle that works on a more resonant and emotional level. That becomes clear when Mitch Ryan delivers the touching and spare epilogue. His adoring cast members look on with professional satisfaction and affectionate gratitude for the chance to hear him have the final word. And it’s just as moving for us. 

Of course, the impossible luck of seeing this ensemble assembled is going to put any audience of fans in the right mood. Yes. That’s especially true in a year where, I believe, we have lost more cast members than I’m comfortable counting. Everyone is both having fun and bringing their A-Game, with about as much prep time as we are used to seeing them have on the original show.

This was not an easy presentation to pull together with little notice. But its success is not a minor miracle. It’s what happens when determined professionals get to do what they do best. The result is a production that, although brief, connects us with the emotional realities of the actual text, serving up sobering truths about aging, regret, and envy with equal measures of believably-earned hope.

Of course, there is esprit de corps and an intense sense of teamwork. But at a certain point, someone has to be Scrooge and stand out even further. 

So, David Selby.

In a performance that defines the most extraordinary horizons of what quarantine theater can be, Selby captures true theatrical size with the cerebral nuances afforded by the intimacy of the webcam.  In the midst of nothing but technology, he rescues the humanity that the story deserves. It is an honest performance. I kept waiting for his “bah humbug,“ and other trademark phrases, eager to hear his unique spin on them. Well, there was no spin. Instead, I was seeing Ebenezer Scrooge making a point to other characters rather than a self-conscious actor trying to top earlier Ebenezers. David Selby is a fine writer who represents the author, not himself. I suspect that we are seeing the performance he would want from actors in one of his own productions.

As the story unfolds, we see a character desperate to hide the pain he associates with lost loves and friendships. This is ostensibly a play about the unfair privilege of class differences. Here, I sense a parallel story: the unfair privilege of relationship differences. Scrooge, having earned it, wears his alienation with the pride of a man sure of nothing else.  Selby’s Scrooge feels wisely reverse-engineered from the middle of the play outward in either direction. The relatable sadness of his miscalculations and deviations from the Fezziwig standard chain him as much as the weights encumbering Jacob Marley. As a character haunted by Marley‘s Christmastime passing long before any literal ghosts appear, Selby takes great care to believably connect with the details of Ebenezer’s past. With nothing but his face and voice, he brings us the depth of Dickens with a rare purity as Scrooge is reintroduced to everything he’s lost.

When Scrooge finally exults in, perhaps, the most heartfelt “Merry Christmas“ I may have ever heard, I felt like I was seeing a man finally given permission to forgive himself. Scrooge connects with a world ever ready to offer second chances, and if anything makes this a “Dark Shadows“ production, it’s that. Again and again, that’s the message of the program, and that’s the message that we see here, as well. 

Partly because of our connection with the work of these actors over decades, the result is emotionally exhausting, but never overwrought. Honesty may not always be pretty, but if it is explored with range and sympathy, it is inevitably the most satisfying part of a ritual like this. 

Back to context. Rarely, if ever, does a franchise give its loyal audience a gift of this much heart and finesse. I don’t know if we will see the ensemble assembled like this once more. I think everyone is aware of that danger. Like the story itself, this was an opportunity to express a simple truth — moments to express respect, admiration, and love may never come again. Don’t be stingy with them.

James Storm is once again the reliable chameleon, embodying principled strength with compassionate eloquence. Jerry Lacy conjures up a Marley with precisely the grim relish to catalyze the journey. David Henesy has lost none of his ability to nail every single line with impudent sincerity. Nancy Barrett completely erases any sadness I might have at her absence from acting by reassuring me that her spark and wit are still screen-ready for the producer smart enough to cast her. And more effervescent than ever, Marie Wallace brings her native warmth and sense of life with every bit of the immediacy we enjoyed in 1968 and 1969. 

Yes, the story is a bit of a boy’s club… which is a clear invitation to the dance for such a powerful female ensemble. Nonetheless, Lara Parker elicits the nimble delicacy of the language with naturally cerebral verve. Kathryn Leigh Scott mixes a sense of ethical sincerity with the hint of sardonic mischief that is her laudable trademark. Leave it to accomplished authors to know exactly how to handle poetry of mirth and strength.

And the former Miss Winters? Alexandra Moltke Isles could have coasted on her own novelty, but she doesn’t. There is a dark and intense forthrightness to her presence, and I am too busy watching her character to be distracted by the rare and long awaited return of their actor. She wanted to explore more range and darker colors on the tv program. It took 50 years to see why she was right, but the results are well worth it.

Finally, Mitch Ryan inaugurates and resolves the story with an easy, reserved gravitas of reassuring authority. It takes the brightest of actors to observe the action with an improbably passionate neutrality. Mitch Ryan was and is the definition of that bright actor.  

When the Dark Shadows Universe (a thing extending far beyond the actual production of the show) initially said goodbye to Ryan, Moltke Isles, and Henesy, a critical balance was lost. Thanks to this production, this can now be seen as only momentary. Dark Shadows is about home, often for those without one. Watching this made me feel as if the doors to Collinwood were open again. 2020 and 2021 took more from us than we deserved.  This gesture, at this time, is an essential reminder of what we still have. Too often, the love of a franchise reveals itself in the desperate acquisition of props and autographs and photos and handshakes, all of which are noble, but all of which distract us from the real reasons why we love the people who brought it to life. Richard Halpern and Ansel Faraj take full advantage of this rare opportunity to see them doing what we love most: acting. They have not only given this ensemble yet another vehicle to relish telling a great story together, but they have given us the opportunity and intimacy to see it. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: November 30

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1165


Tad finds out that justice can be a mother when Samantha performs her wifely duty of trying to get her husband beheaded. Tad: David Henesy. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Even though the county prosecutor quits his job over the inanity of Quentin’s trial, the figures of Official Justice insist it go forward anyway. When he’s replaced by someone played by Humbert Allen Astredo, Quentin knows it will not go well. Meanwhile, although Tad begs his mother to testify on Quentin’s behalf, she instead takes the stand against him. Quentin responds by sitting around and pretending not to notice how handsome everyone thinks he is. 

It's David Henesy's last day on the program. It's a sad graduation. It's a quiet graduation. It's the kind of graduation that means a lot more to the adults than to the people actually going through it. Like all graduations, I guess. It's hard to tell whether or not they intended this to be his last appearance. He was at an awkward age for the program. You couldn't get away with any of the juvenile plots of him doing something out of naïveté. Yes, he could be turned into a delinquent, but that’s a move the show might not be ready for. Even in the world of David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman, he's not quite old enough to be an official teen idol without it feeling just a little bit creepy. All of this... packed into someone of middle teenage vintage who nevertheless has a voice deeper than Brock Peters

His farewell to the program consists of one scene, and it shows the influence that Tad should have on his world. With his father accused of witchcraft, Ted expects his mother to testify on her husband's behalf. Virginia Vestoff does a wonderful job trying to bend and weave around Tad's expectation, preparing herself to survive whatever kind of confrontation will follow whatever stunt she pulls on the stand. 

Although no relationship in life improves after the first date, it is the last conversation that permanently frames us with each other. Given that these characters, via specific actors, turn up over and over and over again in era after era, it's pointless (in some regards) to see them as anything other than one figure with many masks. All of the David Hennessy characters might as well be just one David Hennessy character. And if we look at it that way, what do we learn from this? 

Well, for one thing, this character was much better at talking people into things back when he decided the rules were meant to be broken. Like Britannicus in I Claudius, I feel like he's become obsessed with "putting on his manly gown," maybe because he doesn't wanna wind up like Laszlo. Either way, he may be becoming all leading man (at least on the chalkboard in his dressing room), but his decision to play it straight comes at the cost not only of his humorbut his overall cleverness. As is reflective of youth culture at the time, if he were any more painfully earnest, we would only see him crying an Iron Eyes Codependent mono-tear over the river of deceit and betrayal that runs through Collinwood. 

So he's growing up. That's a bookend. He's decided to take life seriously. That's a bookend. And he is desperate to stand up for his father, who is getting railroaded on false charges. It feels like he has earned the right to do this. “He” began as a character all too eager to see his father railroaded over allegations the paternoster projected onto, well, who knows? Maybe his other dad. I think we've all had those thoughts. Whether he's doing it for reasons of malice, reasons of justice, reasons of love, or as a five-dollar menu combo of lovingly malicious justice, the David Henesy character begins and ends as someone trying to align his father's legal standing with reality. And it's refreshingly uncynical that he should go from a boy trying to get a guilty father convicted (or at least in hot water) to a kid trying to get his father out. Of course, the two fathers are vastly different. The primary similarity is that the mothers are either physically or emotionally absent, and neither have his best interest at heart. But he is the only person at Collinwood who has yet to see family as more of a mess than a bastion, and so he sticks by the institution with admirable loyalty. 

And Samantha does get up on the stand. Of course, she does the opposite of what Tad wanted her to do. She’s ready to betray Quentin with zesty abandon. But The Henesy’s not around for that. It's almost as if this last blast of optimism collides head-on with one final betrayal from an untrustworthy mother. And perhaps that's all that the David Henesy figure can take. He disappears after that. The message? Very few parents are what they appear to be. Especially mothers. Eventually, that destroys the child within. 

Dark Shadows teaches its lessons in cycles. Moral development in Collinsport is not a straight line. It's a corkscrew, both moving forward while covering the same ground over and over again. The sometimes surrogate mother figures in this character's life have been fire demons, completely absent, suicidal alcoholics, reanimated occultists, and at last, an untrustworthy shrew. As much as the show is meant for women, the female figures that David encounters, no matter the name, have stunningly little to recommend them. Although Victoria is hired to be his companion, she, like all adults, becomes enraptured by events that pre-date David. In that case, for nearly two centuries. Who can compete with that? Carolyn is likewise lost in a hopelessly lost romantic union, which generally makes her lousy conversation. Liz is obsessed with death whenever John Bennett wants a vacation. And Maggie is at Windcliff. So much for female nurture in Collinsport. Fortunately, for someone with a sniveling, cowardly, alcoholic louse of a father (at least for the first year or so), David finds his modeling and nurturing in the men in his life. At various times, Barnabas, Quentin, and Tom Jennings all follow in Burke Devlin's footsteps to provide David with good advice and understanding moral support. At a time when most male relationships on television were based on macho buffoonery, this is revolutionary and refreshing. If you could take anything away from the David Henesy character, it’s that three uncles can make a hell of a mother. 

This episode was broadcast Dec. 11, 1970.
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