Saturday 9 December 2017

Scrooge scrooges bad angels in A Christmas Carol
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Few dramatic challenges can equal having to take a vintage -- some would argue even trite! -- story by Charles Dickens about Christmas and find a way to make it grabby. It's been just shy of 175 years, after all, since this piece set in Victorian England's dour Industrial Age ghettos was first published as a novella. How to make it timeless?

Particularly when Wiki tells us Dickens "was inspired to write the story following a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several establishments for London's half-starved, illiterate street children." No question he was a confirmed humanist : he believed all souls on earth have both the ability and responsibility to choose how they embrace life. The treatment of poor, marginalized and exploited folk among us is not God-ordained, he believed : it is utterly anthropogenic in origin.

Take the heart out of the ghetto and ghetto life gets vastly improved, Charles Dickens thought. All you have to do is do it whether at Christmas or at any other time of year.
Photo credit David Cooper
So. How does one spin this fundamentally godless proposition into fun, sport & amusement about the Christmas spirit you want to take the kids to see? Throw in some song-&-dance. Slap in a few ghosts. Add some next-door-neighbour characters who tug at our heart-strings. Believe that if you scratch beneath their crusts, most folks have better angels half-hidden. Dickens asks their kinder, gentler selves to come out and play : simple as all this.

What the show brings to the stage :  Fact is the character Scrooge is pan-cultural and omnipresent, a reflection of ego-fueled, disparaging bigotry. Name a culture, country or religion that are exempt. With the rise world-wide of nativist and populist impulses, not hard to imagine where the more altruistic themes of empathy and generosity-of-spirit emitting from Dickens would play somewhat poorly. Starting in districts not more than a stone's throw from here.

But -- fortunately! -- the Gateway production suggests that Mr. Bah Humbug doesn't do an altogether Saul-to-Paul on the road to Damascus transformation. No, at core he really remains Mr. Bah Humbug. The New! Improved! Scrooge just loosens the purse strings a bit. Buys the Cratchits a turkey. Offers Cratchit Jr. a job. Has a robust round of giggles at his own expense and a cuddle with Tiny Tim. But really it's just a veneer only slightly more than skin deep. Whew! Saints be praised!

Ebenezer Scrooge (Russell Roberts) gets life lessons from the Spirit of Christmas Present (Allan Morgan) who points out over the London townscape all the Christmas Day pleasantries and generosities being practiced by Scrooge's neighbours and family to try to steer him in a gooderer life direction.
Photo credit : David Cooper

Production values that enhance the script : I.m.o. Gateway's main stage -- like other similarly-sized houses around town -- is precisely not the ideal room for the engaging Michael Shamata adaptation of Mr. Dickens' original. This show would play way better in the intimacy of Jericho or at Pacific Theatre's alley stage or at ACT's 1st Avenue room when set in horseshoe stage mode. (Ideally a theatre-in-the-round event I'd say.)

So in that slightly-hesitant context I nevertheless gotta cheer mightily the Drew Facey set. Like a church nave in skeleton, his open-wall rotating screens suggest the Christian-based spirit of the season. Add a 2-storey rolling duck-blind for ghosts to swivel around the stage-centre dais with its curved staircase. Joining the downstage apron, the cast of 14 playing two dozen roles-&-then-some make the vast spaces they're trying to fill a little more up-close-&-personal.

Two other primary elements help pull all this off admirably. Once more Carmen Alatorre's eye and touch for costume sumptuousness are flawless. (All I want for Christmas is Scrooge's velvety dressing gown...!)  Joelysa Pankanea's sound design with its mix of synthesizer mood riffs coupled with acoustic guitars and piano and drum and chime and voice -- all rich stuff that brings the action together with verve.

The Spirit of Christmas Past (Emily Jane King) magically brings forth not only Ebenezer as a wee lad (Jenna Lamb) but also his sister Fan (Scotia Browner) as she tries to remind Scrooge how once he was a nice kid. What happened -- same question Hillary is asking herself these days...
Photo credit : David Cooper

Acting pin-spots :   Because of his various and sundry roles -- narrator front-&-aft, Jacob Marley, Mr. Fezziwig, the Ghost of Christmas Present -- Allan Morgan quite steals the night as Best Supporting Actor to Russell Roberts' first-rate cut at the off-putting and teeth-grinding grump that is Scrooge. 

For a man of his height and breadth, Morgan is notably nimble afoot, particularly as the endearing Fezziwig who was Scrooge's (failed...) mentor in business. His basso profundo voice and endless arms and hands make his presence just that much more present. Mr. Russell's transformative scenes at show's end, meanwhile, were sheer delight to watch and hear. You will lol, literally. This praise in no way to detract from some fine turns by the rest of the troupe -- both from the seasoned actors and the newbies, too.   

Who gonna like : As a kid, Hallmark Hall of Fame sponsored annually on NBC a live stage production of Carlos Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. Memories of that show -- more than It's A Wonderful Life or Holiday Inn  -- remain fixed on my brain's replay screen as "the" definitive Christmas drama I died waiting each season to see. Seeing A Christmas Carol done as stage-play tugged at me similarly to Amahl. Much more so than the Alistair Sim movie ever did.

I know not other adaptations done of Dickens for the stage, but Mr. Shamata's effort is not just worthy but magnetic. Everyone speaks "normal", no hacked-up English accents being tried out and faked. Cross-cultural casting, a delightful blend of pro-am talent trotted out. 

Anyone looking for some "real" flavour of the season to watch and hear and feel should jump at the chance to take this show in. It will no doubt -- like Marley's ghosts -- be remounted in years to come. But make a pledge this year : buy your family an experience, not a thing. This might be just the one.

Particulars : Original novella written by Charles Dickens. Adapted for the stage by Michael Shamata. On at Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert Road, Richmond. On thru December 24, 2017. Tickets & schedule information via box office phone @ 604.270.1812 or on-line @ tickets.gatewaytheatre.comRun-time 110 minutes, including intermission.

Production crew : Director Rachel Peake.  Assistant Director William Ford Hopkins. Movement Consultant Shane Snow.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Carmen Allatore.  Lighting Designer Itai Erdal.  Sound / Composition Designer Joelysa Pankanea. Technical Director Marcus Stusek.  Stage Manager Lois Dawson.  Assistant Stage Manager Michelle Harrison.  Apprentice Stage Manager Madelaine Walker.  Apprentice Stage Manager Donnie Tejani.

Performers : Russell Roberts (Ebenezer Scrooge).  Allan Morgan (Jacob Marley).  Adam Olgui (Bob Crotchet /Dick Wilkins / Others).  Jenna Lamb (Tiny Tim / Ebenezer as Child / Others).  Emily Jane King (Spirit of Christmas Past / Others).  Allan Morgan (Spirit of Christmas Present / Others).  Josh Chambers (Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come / Others).  Stephanie Wong (Mrs. Cratchit / Spirit / Others).  Amanda Testini (Belle / Spirit / Others).  Linda Quibell (Mrs. Fezziwig / Mrs. Dilber / Others)./. Matthias Falvai (Peter Cratchit / Topper).  Michelle Morris (Martha Cratchit / Miss Jane / Others).  Sachi Nisbet (Belinda Cratchit / Mrs. Fred / Others).  Teo Saefkow (Fred / Young Ebenezer / Others).  Scotia Browner (Fan / Others). 


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