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INNOVATIONS RING THE BELL IN STUDIO ARENA'S 'CHRISTMAS CAROL'

Of all the productions of "A Christmas Carol" galloping across the frontier this holiday season, none, I guarantee you, will cost as much as the production at the Studio Arena Theatre.

The play is traditionally presented as either spectacle or as "actors' piece." In the first case there is a cast of 50, many crowd scenes, alarming ghosts, maybe a horse and a lot of special effects.

An "actor's piece" is heavy on concept, strongly dependent on talent and emphasizes atmosphere over an elaborately built set.

The Studio Arena production melds the two formulas. Here, 10 actors play 30 main roles; with another group of 19 alternates in support roles. Then there's the spectacle provided by means of a revolving stage, a massive and detailed set, complex sound and lighting effects, spooky atmosphere and carefully arrayed ghosts who appear out of great foggy clouds or out of the floor.

The adaption by Amlin Gray works well here, although it may alarm purists. He takes certain liberties with the story, although probably not with the author's overall intentions.

To be a picky, sniveling nerd about it, the production isn't letter-perfect, but then I saw it on opening night, when folks are apt to trip and floating platforms are apt to stick offstage. It is, however, a satisfying and well-played production that actually transports the audience at times into the dark cellars of a ruined heart.

Director David Frank and Gray have opted to present the story without the usual narrator to set the stage. As a result, they must invent Victorian London onstage and have Marley explain his motivations in a way usually left to the storyteller.

Gray gives us a sense of the author's lifelong war on privation and misery of London's working classes, more than is usual, but he substitutes his own examples for some of the more sensitive and cruelly funny scenes, like the one in which a couple of creepy charwomen discuss the dead Scrooge. The story is also reworked here to end on Christmas Eve, giving Scrooge a chance to live the day over again in a better mood.

The set is just wonderful, as usual. The tall, skinny, oppressive buildings of Victorian London loom over the stage and lighting and special effects produce just the right atmosphere. Into this murky morning, Scrooge and his long suffering clerk move out of the streets toward the audience on a floating set depicting Scrooge's grim, freezing office.

Other required sites of action float in and out as well, bringing their actors and, in most cases, their atmosphere with them. Designer Paul Wonsek has done an excellent job here of integrating this technical wizardry into the story.

As Scrooge, Robert Spencer presents the old bird with just the right measure of misanthropic bile. At the same time, his personal misery is palpable enough for us to attend to his involuntary journey through his own life.

Despite the questions raised about the possibility of a dreamlike hallucination, there is no sense here that Scrooge is compelled to remember by something other than purely external forces. Herein lies a great reliance on the credibility of the spirits who whip him back and forth in time. Unfortunately they provide the only significant glitch here.

The arrival of Marley (Arn Weiner) is foreshadowed by weird and unexplainable happenings, of course. We're as wary as Scrooge is. Then Marley slams into this dimension as a great, paunchy, bellowing fellow in lightweight chains who just doesn't look dead. Weiner's great talents are used to greater effect in his role of "Old Joe," a foul and Fagin-like character who seems to have hippity-hopped out of "Oliver Twist."

Christmas Past (Jane Macfie) has a difficult role, a personification of melancholy and regret. Her role is choreographed to sort of "spin" Scrooge into his past, but these sudden and unexpected dervish-like flourishes distract from the rest of the action onstage and underline her physicality. Macfie works hard at this difficult movement, but the effort is palpable.

The Dickens' ghosts are always a pain to perfect onstage because the actors' corporality just naturally gets in the way.

Christmas Present (William Verderber) is supposed to be a corporeal fellow and so from the time he pops up like a rollicking, vegetable trimmed Dionysus, he is a very credible pagan fleshpot who brings life and frolic to the play. The Cratchit family, led by a very fine Bob (Kevin Donovan), is a warm and funny group, matching Vanderber's mood. The children in this production are excellent, by the way, and Tiny Tim (Ashley Wahl in this instance) is a real sweetie. Wahl alternates with Sara Sansone in the role.

Lurking beneath the massive frame and grim robes of Christmas Future, Aaron Cabell is called upon to manipulate a pair of long, stiff, skeletal arms that reach what looks to be mid-calf on a figure nine feet tall. Give this guy a manicure. The arms seriously detract from the eeriness of the character and draw way too much attention to themselves in pivotal scenes because they look so funny.

There are many, many other fine performances here, notably three each by Peter Toran, Meghan Rose Krank and Nora Cole; Macfie's and Cabell's other two parts and four by Brad Bellamy. The urchin quality is high, costumes by Mary Ann Powell are swell and Rick Menke's sound design adds a genuinely creepy dimension. Kay Long's illuminating program notes deserve mention and applause.

Although a few iffy ideas are made flesh here, it's a really good show that will send you digging through the closet for your wassail bowl.

REVIEW
"A Christmas Carol," Dickens' classic tale of spiritual regeneration.

Rating:
Directed by David Frank, starring Robert Spencer.

8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 31; matinees at 2 p.m. Dec. 21 and 27; Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St.

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