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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: A.C.T.’s heartwarming performance of Dickens’ holiday classic “Christmas Carol” through December 24 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter is Ebenezer Scrooge and Rebekah Brockman is the Ghost of Christmas Past, playing November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter is Ebenezer Scrooge and Rebekah Brockman is the Ghost of Christmas Past, who first appears on a swing. “A Christas Carol” runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Bah Humbug!  It’s time again for those immortal and endearing words.  With dozens of productions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” opening this holiday season,  one that really stands out in the Bay Area is A.C.T.’s (American Conservatory Theatre), which opened last Tuesday and runs through Christmas Eve.

Now in its 36th year at A.C.T.,  A Christmas Carol  is thoroughly enjoyable, offering fine acting, vivid characterizations, dazzling special effects, lush staging and beautiful period costumes.  Adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh in 2005, and directed by Domenique Lozano, with music by Karl Lundeberg, this lively version stays true to the heart of Dickens’ timeless story of redemption but it has some updates and cast changes that keep it fresh.   The production runs two hours (with intermission) and the evening show begins an hour early, at 7 pm, with additional 1 or 2 pm performances nearly every day through Christmas Eve.  Combine it with a walk through bustling and gorgeously lit Union Square en route to A.C.T.’s historic Geary Theatre and it’s a very doable evening outing for families or for those who are from the greater Bay Area and face a longer drive home.

We all know the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s wake-up call and it rings ever true today. Wealthy Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser and a kill joy.  “The only thing more ridiculous than Merry Christmas is falling in love!” sputters crotchety James Carpenter early in the play.  Carpenter, now in his 6th year in the role, keeps adding new layers of complexity to Scrooge.  This year, he plays him as a member of the 1 percent who is willfully and persistently ignorant to the suffering of his fellow human beings and who is completely unaware of how closed off, disagreeable and unkempt he has become over the years.

 By contrast, Bob Cratchit (Nick Pelczar), Scrooge’s overworked clerk, hasn’t a schilling to his name but he has vast inner resources—a heart of gold and a large loving family. Cratchit is played with genuine warmth and dignity by Pelczar, whose radiance is matched by Delia MacDougall’s portrayal of his equally good-hearted wife, Anne Cratchit. The Cratchit’s material hardship makes the wealthy Scrooge seem all the more despicable, even pitiable, because he cannot enjoy or share the massive fortune he has amassed. Dickens shows not only Scrooge’s miserliness but also how it would come to ruin the lives his beloved sister’s descendants and harm his impoverished clerk’s family. While writing his classic, Dickens realized that if Scrooge’s imagination could be stimulated, it would be possible for him to wake up on Christmas morning an entirely new man and that’s the message of the play. Scrooge’s remarkable transformation—ideological, ethical and emotional—is brought about by the visits of four ghosts on Christmas Eve—Jacob Marley (his former business partner) and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future.

The Ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Ruta) haunts Scrooge on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. Photo: Kevin Berne

The Ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Ruta) haunts Scrooge on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. Photo: Kevin Berne

The visits of these ghosts, who lead Scrooge through some very poignant and harrowing scenes from his life, represent the production’s most creative parts. Setting the bar for ghastly ghost behavior highlighted by special effects is the Ghost of Jacob Marley, played by Ken Ruta, who originated this role in the 2005 production. Amidst billowing clouds of colored smoke, he robustly pops out of the headboard of Scrooge’s bed, rattling chains and issuing warnings and looking like death-warmed over with his crazy frizzed out hair.  Ruta replaces the revered Jack Willis who is over at Berkeley Rep playing a meddling Buddhist monk in Mary Zimmermann’s adaptation of The White Snake.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, is played humorously again by A.C.T.’s Omozé Idehenre who appears in striated green velvet as a Bacchic spirit of abundance.  One of the production’s unique touches is that the ghosts are, at times, suspended above Scrooge on swings, adding a playful touch.

And gauging’s the Bay Area’s love of puppets, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is spot on—a giant black bat-like puppet apparition that fills the stage and moves its appendages in and out as if it could readily swallow someone up.  It also serves as a screen. As projections of the harrowing future that await Scrooge flash rapidly before him, Scrooge gets his final wake-up call.

Carmen Steele is Tiny Tim (little Timothy Cratchit), the play’s emotional center, and has a wonderful stage presence.  When Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Present, he learns just how ill Tim really is, and that Tim will die unless he receives treatment (which the family cannot afford due to Scrooge’s miserliness). When he’s next visited by The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Tim’s little wooden crutch is all that is shown because Tim has died.  This and several other harrowing visions, lead Scrooge to reform the moment he wakes up on Christmas morning. And change he does!   He gives his cleaning lady, Mrs. Dilber, a real jolt by thanking her, paying her generously, and giving her the holidays off.  Sharon Lockwood, who brilliantly channels Bewitched’s dingy Aunt Clara, makes Mrs. Dilber one of the most endearing characters of all.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter (L) is Ebenezer Scrooge and Carmen Steele (R) is Tiny Tim Cratchit.  Runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter (L) is Ebenezer Scrooge and Carmen Steele (R) is Tiny Tim Cratchit. Runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Val Caniparoli’s choreography, as always, is fantastic.  There’s lots of lighthearted and fluid dancing which showcases Beaver Bauer’s beautiful period costumes and Caniparoli has interjected some new funk and spunk into the scary ghosts.  Caniparoli, who is currently dancing the role of the toymaker, Drosselmeyer, in SF Ballet’s treasured Nutcracker, really understands how much enjoyment an audience gets from the gestures communicated through dance. Under his direction, the lively ball at the Fezziwig Warehouse, with its new cartoon-like sets, was delightful and Act II’s lively “Waltz of the Opulent Fruit” was charmingly executed by six young Bay Area actors who had been transformed into plump and colorful French plums, Turkish figs, and Spanish onions.  Their festive jig, which showcases composer Karl Lundeberg’s talent, is always an audience favorite.

The message is profoundly clear in this play of new beginnings: generosity comes in many forms and its rewards are priceless.  Scrooge doesn’t so much need to celebrate Christmas (but when he finally does, he does it admirably) as to open his heart which enables to him to both give and receive…which is the one of the joys of Christmas. 

The Dickens novella that inspired it all is at the Morgan Library: “A Christmas Carol” was written by Charles Dickens and published in somber Victorian-era Britain in December 1843, when new customs such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards were just being introduced. This was before Christmas became today’s highly commercial venture but also during a time when there wasn’t much gleeful celebration. The novella was an instant hit, largely for its memorable characters and its realistic depictions of the hardships of the working class which people related to. It infused people with hope during a stifling period and has been credited with putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas in England and America. When it was first published, its 6,000 copies printed up in time for Christmas, sold out. Because Dickens had selected lavish drawings in red and green ink by John Leech, one of the Britain’s best illustrators, the book was a financial bust. It went on to become a literary staple, so Dickens fared well but it was also pirated immediately after publication. It was shortly adapted to the stage and the rest is history.

The financier J.P. Morgan bought the manuscript in 1890 and it has been housed at 225 Madison Avenue, in Pierpont Morgan’s historic Library.  The 66 page handwritten manuscript, written in large scribbling cursive in just 6 days, is exhibited each holiday season at The Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan.  As a matter of expedience, only one page is put on view each year, under glass. This year, page 61 is on display, which is the first page of the final Stave (Stave V), titled “The End of It.”  This is the scene in which Scrooge, awaking after the visitation of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, celebrates his reprieve. (Click here to be directed to that page.) The entire original manuscript, along with a very useful audio option that allows readers to hear a page read aloud is available online here courtesy of the Morgan Library.

Run-time A.C.T.’s  A Christmas Carol:  Two hours including one 15 minute intermission.

Cast:  James Carpenter (Ebenezer Scrooge), Ken Ruta (Ghost of Christmas Past), Nick Pelcar (Bob Cratchit, Delia MacDougall (Anne Cratchit), Jarion Monroe (Mr. Fezziwig), Sharon Lockwood (Mrs. Fezziwig), Omozé Idehenre (Ghost of Christmas Present).  The adult cast also includes Cindy Goldfield, Howard Swain, Arwen Anderson, Stephanie DeMott.

The Christmas Carol cast also includes six third-year students from the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program, many of whom traditionally receive their Actors’ Equity cards as a result of their participation in A Christmas Carol —Rebekah Brockman, Raymond Castelán, Allegra Rose Edwards, Nick Steen, Tyee J. Tilghman and Titus Tompkins. And a record 27 young actors from the A.C.T. Young Conservatory (YC) are participating in the production—Graham Bennett, Frank Demma, Ian DeVaynes, Chloe Durham, Jack Estes, Dashiell Ferrero, Elke Janssen, Leo Jergovic, Louis Kehoe, Sydney Kistler, Shalan Lee, Madelyn Levine, Elsie Lipson, Katerine Liviakis, Sarah Magen, Timothy Marston, Rachel Metzger, Kai Nau, Evelyn Ongpin, Gavin Pola, Kennedy Roberts, Lindsay Sohn, Carmen Steele, Sasha Steiner, Emma Sutherland, Samuel Sutton, and Seth Weinfield.

Creative Team:  John Arnone (set design), Beaver Bauer (costume design), Karl Lundeberg (original music), Val Caniparoli (choreography), Nancy Schertler (lighting design), and Jake Rodriguez (sound design), and Robert Rutt (musical direction).

Details: A Christmas Carol runs through December 24, 2012 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances:

7 p.m.: December 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22

5:30 p.m.: December 16, 23

2 p.m.: December 12, 15, 21, 22

1 p.m.: December 16, 23, 24

Tickets: $20-$95, available online through the A.C.T. online box office , or by phone (415)439-2473.  For all performances, no children under the age of 5 are permitted.  Performances sell out quickly.  Act now for the best seats !

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December 10, 2012 - Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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