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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 !

December 10, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

God Bless us, everyone! A heartwarming performance of Dickens’ classic “Christmas Carol,” through December 24 at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” the Ghost of Jacob Marley (A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, left) haunts Scrooge (James Carpenter) on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. The play runs through Christmas Eve. Photo: Kevin Berne

The holiday season for me means time spent with family and friends and getting back in touch with my “goodwill towards all” vibe.  Tuesday evening, after a romp through a bustling Union Square, I had the pleasure of attending A.C.T.’s “A Christmas Carol” and highly recommend this family-friendly classic for setting spirits right.  This classic and beloved tale of transformation just doesn’t get any better.  The performance (with intermission) runs two hours and the evening show begins an hour early at 7 pm, with additional 1 or 2 pm performances nearly every day through Christmas Eve.  This makes it a doable evening outing for families with kids or for those who are from the greater Bay Area and face a long drive home.

 “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 also infused people with hope and has been credited with putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas in England and America during a stifling period.   It was pirated immediately and adapted to the stage and the rest is history.  Now in its 35thyear at ACT, the play is a cornerstone of ACT’s repertory and has become a holiday tradition for families all around the Bay Area.  Adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff, and directed by Domenique Lozano, this version has been around since 2004 and has been performed over a thousand times and stays true to the heart of Dickens’ timeless story of redemption. 

Ebenezer Scrooge (James Carpenter, right) scolds his overworked employee Bob Cratchit (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano) on Christmas Eve. Photo: Kevin Berne

 We all know the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s wake-up call which rings ever true today.  Rich Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser and a kill joy–not very loving, giving, or even friendly.  James Carpenter, now in his fifth year in this role, doesn’t flinch from playing Scrooge’s harsh sides to the hilt but he also shows us a man who is completely and tragically unaware of how stuck and disagreeable he has become.  In Northern CA, we all know what happens when there’s no positive energy flow and Scrooge embodies the big “NO” with every ounce of his being.  

By contrast, impoverished Bob Cratchit, A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano, who is Scrooge’s clerk and whipping boy hasn’t a schilling to his name but he has vast inner resources– a true heart of gold- and a large loving family.  Cratchit is played with genuine warmth and dignity by Felciano 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 realized that if Scrooge’s

The dancing is delightful in A.C.T.'s "A Christmas Carol." The produce sellers (A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell, right, and Cindy Goldfield) bring in the bounty of the season, including belly-dancing Turkish figs (on cart: Emily Spears, left, and Elsie Lipson). Photo: Kevin Berne.

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.   At Tuesday’s press opening, the show was full of marvelous special effects associated with the visits of each of these ghosts who led Scrooge through some very poignant and harrowing scenes from his life.  Jack Willis, who returns as the Ghost of Jacob Marley, set the pace by robustly rising from Scrooge’s bed, rattling chains and warnings amidst clouds of smoke. The Ghost of Christmas Present, played delightfully by A.C.T.’s Omozé Idehenre, emerged in striated green velvet as a Bacchic spirit of abundance with lusty vibes.  

The Cratchit family toasts to Scrooge's health on Christmas in A.C.T.'s annual production of "A Christmas Carol," thorugh December 17, 2011. Photo: Kevin Berne

And then there’s Tiny Tim (little Timothy Cratchit), the play’s emotional center, played wonderfully by young Graham Bennett.  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, all he can see is Tim’s little wooden crutch because Tim has died.  This and several other harrowing visions, lead Scrooge to reform which begins from the moment he wakes up on Christmas morning and shocks his cleaning lady Mrs. Dilber (Sharon Lockwood channeling Bewitched’s dingy Aunt Clara ) by thanking her, paying her generously and giving her the holidays off.

A reformed Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) celebrates the season with his nephew, Fred (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Jason Frank, far left), Fred’s wife, Mary (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Maggie Leigh, second from left), and the Cratchits: Bob (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano), Anne (Delia MacDougall), and Tiny Tim (Graham Bennett). Photo: Kevin Berne.

Val Caniparoli’s choreography is fantastic—lots of lighthearted dancing and movement that show off the period costumes designed for the production by Beaver Bauer of Teatro ZinZanni.  Dickens’s lovely descriptions of the abundance of Christmas bounty are staged creatively at the start of Act 2 as “The Waltz of the Opulent Fruit,” with six charming young Bay Area actors taking on the roles of dancing French plums, Turkish figs, and Spanish onions.  The production will infuse one and all with holiday cheer and is highly recommended for families and children of all ages.

Details:  American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.

7 p.m.: December 20, 21, 22, 23

5:30 p.m.: December 18

2 p.m.: December 21, 22, 23, 24

1 p.m.: December 18

Run-time: Two hours including one intermission. Tickets: $15-$105, available online through the A.C.T. online box office , or by phone (415) 749-2228.  For all performances, no children under the age of 5 are permitted

December 18, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep–the long and the short of Sarah Ruhl’s new version, April 8- May 22, 2011

(l to r) Natalia Payne (Masha), Heather Wood (Irina) and Wendy Rich Stetson (Olga) play the title characters in Sarah Ruhl’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep. through May 22, 2011. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Clocking in at three hours, it takes time to sit through the Three Sisters which opened last week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage…is it time well spent?  Absolutely, but this engrossing 1901 Chekhov drama unfurls at a slow pace and it helps beforehand to know what you’re in for.  Sarah Ruhl’s new version, which is based on a literal translation of Chekhov, and directed by Les Waters,  comes together in a cohesive flowing whole.   This is what the Berkeley Rep has built its reputation on.   The language has been modernized, it feels light, but the production itself feels grounded early in the last century due in large part to Annie Smart’s lovely set, homey and historically accurate right down to the table linens, and Ilona Somogyi’s provincial Russian gowns and military costumes.  In all, there is the feeling of stepping back into a living breathing portrait where people are initially hopeful but then gradually flounder having done little to build their own lives.

Ruhl, a MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004 for her play The Clean House , is known for tackling big ideas with lyricism.  In the Three Sisters,the big idea, expressed so simply by one of the sisters, is “Life is a raspberry—one little bite and it’s gone.”  Sitting through the play, we see these three lovely raspberries—the Prozorov sisters– bud, ripen and wither…suffering from spiritual malaise, boredom and endless yearning for the high life in Moscow which remains the distant dream, the excuse.  And don’t we all, to some extent, live our lives with some aspect of inertia, dreaming of distant Moscow, but withering on the vine? 

(l to r) Bruce McKenzie (Vershinin) and Natalia Payne (middle sister Masha) experience ill-fated love in Sarah Ruhl’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep. through May 22, 2011. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

The story unfolds through the three Prozorov sisters–women at different stages of life, who all experience evaporated hope—Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson), the eldest is a good-hearted teacher and having peaked, believes herself to be a spinster.  Irina (Heather Wood), the youngest, is fresh-faced, virginal, exuberant and optimistic. Throughout the course of the play she grows up and into womanhood.  Her two suitors reflect the limited romantic options even for the young and beautiful.  The most interesting sister is Masha (Natalia Payne), the pensive middle sister, smoldering with passion and anger, who has settled down into a reasonably boring married life with husband Kulygin (Keith Riddin).  When the new military commander Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie) enters the scene, they begin a flirtation that over time evolves into love that is doomed.  Payne plays Masha brilliantly with growing outbursts of frustration and bitter rage.  

The most questionable performance is Emily Kitchens as Natasha, the scheming petit-bourgheoise bumpkin who seduces brother Andrei (Alex Moggridge) and marries up and into the household where she soon wields power.  Kitchens (who you may recognize as Betsy/Lindsey from A.C.T.’s recent production of Clybourne Park ) plays the role with enough ambivalence to really peak my interest.  Kitchen’s Natasha enters the play as an overly sweet and small-minded girl who means well and takes the mothering of her young Bobol to obsession, but she never really rises to the predatory cunning often associated with the role. In Act 3, where she unceremoniously speaks her mind about firing the elderly helper Afinsa (Barbara Oliver), she is as much dissatisfied with the lack of appreciation due her as the sisters are exhausted with the course of their own miserable lives.

Secondary character Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie) is heroic both in his vision and inured misery.  (He has a wife who regularly attempts suicide and two young daughters that he worries over.)  A real philosopher, his nonstop speculations about the future endure Masha and clearly voice Chekhov’s own concerns.  (Act 1)  “Our projects, our obsessions, theories big and important, the time will come when they won’t be considered important and we can’t imagine what will be vastly important.”  A constant theme in Chekhov’s writing is the belief in progress–that life should be spent working hard in preparation for the future, for work and science would transform mankind, not the idle laziness of the gentry.  One of the play’s richest moments comes in Act 2, as he and Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) sit and philosophize about their lives and their futures, and the quest for meaning and fulfillment.  By Act 4, all hope is dashed.  On the eve of the twentieth century and the cataclysm that awaits Russia, Moscow has eluded the three sisters and those little raspberries have hardened on the vine, a sad end to a slowly building series of disappointments and tragedies…but Chekhov would have it no other way.      

Production Team:

Sarah Ruhl, Playwright
Les Waters, Director
Annie Smart, Scenic Design
Ilona Somogyi, Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols, Lighting Design
David Budries, Sound Design
Julie Wolf, Musical Director
Rachel Steinberg, Dramaturg
Michael Suenkel *, Stage Manager
Cynthia Cahill *, Assistant Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin, Casting
Janet Foster, Casting
Jennifer Wills, Assistant Director
Noah Marin, Assistant Costume Design

Cast (in order of speaking):

Wendy Rich Stetson, Olga
Heather Wood, Irina
James Carpenter, Chebutykin
Thomas Jay Ryan, Tuzenbach
Sam Breslin Wright, Solyony
Natalia Payne, Masha
Barbara Oliver, Anfisa
Richard Farrell, Ferapont
Bruce McKenzie, Vershinin
Alex Moggridge, Andrei
Keith Reddin, Kulygin
Emily Kitchens, Natasha
David Abrams, Fedotik
Cobe Gordon, Rode

Details:  The Three Sisters runs through May 22, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Street (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances: Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances.  Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org .  Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre.  The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

April 28, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: God Bless us, everyone! A heartwarming performance of Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” through December 24 at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre)

The Ghost of Jacob Marley (A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, left) haunts Scrooge (James Carpenter) on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. Photo: Kevin Berne

The holiday season for me means time spent with family and friends and getting back in touch with my “goodwill towards all” vibe.  Tuesday evening, after a romp through a bustling and very commercial Union Square, I had the pleasure of attending A.C.T.’s “A Christmas Carol” and highly recommend this family-friendly classic for setting spirits right.  The performance (with intermission) runs two hours and the evening show begins an hour early at 7 pm, with additional 1 or 2 pm performances nearly every day.  This makes it a doable evening outing for families with kids or for those who are from the greater Bay Area and face a long drive home.

 “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 also infused people with hope and has been credited with putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas in England and America during a stifling period.   It was pirated immediately and adapted to the stage and the rest is history.  Now in its 34th year at A.C.T., the play is a cornerstone of A.C.T.’s repertory and has become a holiday tradition for families all around the Bay Area.  Adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff, and directed by Domenique Lozano, this version has been around since 2004 and has been performed over a thousand times and stays true to the heart of Dickens’ timeless story of redemption.

Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) is touched by Christmas memories of his younger self (Tony Sinclair) and his sister, Fan (Emma Rose Draisin). Photo: Kevin Berne.

 We all know the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s wake-up call and it rings ever true today.  Rich Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser and a kill joy–not very loving, giving, or even friendly.  James Carpenter, now in his fifth year in this role, doesn’t flinch from playing Scrooge’s harsh sides to the hilt but he also shows us a man who is completely and tragically unaware of how stuck and disagreeable he has become.  In Northern CA, we all know what happens when there’s no flow and Scrooge embodies the big “NO” with every ounce of his being.   

By contrast, impoverished Bob Cratchit, who is Scrooge’s clerk and whipping boy, hasn’t a schilling to his name but he has vast inner resources– a true heart of gold- and a large loving family.  Cratchit is played with genuine warmth and dignity by Nicholas 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 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.   At Tuesday’s press opening, the show was full of marvelous special effects associated with the visits of each of these ghosts who led Scrooge through some very poignant and harrowing scenes from his life.  Jack Willis, who returns as the Ghost of Jacob Marley, set the pace by robustly rising from Scrooge’s bed, rattling chains and warnings amidst clouds of smoke.  The Ghost of Christmas Present, played delightfully by A.C.T.’s Steven Anthony Jones, emerged in striated green velvet as a jovial and lusty Bacchic spirit of abundance.  

And then there’s Tiny Tim (little Timothy Cratchit), the play’s emotional center, played wonderfully by young Sadie Eve Scott.  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, all he can see is Tim’s little wooden crutch because Tim has died.  This and several other harrowing visions, lead Scrooge to reform which begins from the moment he wakes up on Christmas morning and shocks his cleaning lady Mrs. Dilber (Sharon Lockwood channeling Bewitched’s dingy Aunt Clara ) by thanking her, paying her generously and giving her the holidays off.

A reformed Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) celebrates the season with his nephew, Fred (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Patrick Lane, right), Fred’s wife, Mary (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Jenna Johnson, second from right), and the Cratchits: Bob (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program alumnus Nicholas Pelczar), Anne (Delia MacDougall), and Tiny Tim (Sadie Eve Scott). Photo: Kevin Berne.

Val Caniparoli’s choreography is fantastic—lots of lighthearted dancing and movement that show off the period costumes designed for the production by Beaver Bauer of Teatro ZinZanni.  Dickens’s lovely descriptions of the abundance of Christmas bounty are staged creatively at the start of Act 2 as “The Waltz of the Opulent Fruit,” with six charming young Bay Area actors taking on the roles of dancing French plums, Turkish figs, and Spanish onions. 

 

Details:  American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  

Remaining Performances–

7 p.m.: December 10, 11, 15, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23

5:30 p.m.: December 12, 19

2 p.m.: December  9, 11, 21, 22, 23, 24

1 p.m.: December 12, 19

Run-time: Two hours including one 20 minute intermission.

Tickets: $15-$102, available online through the A.C.T. online box office , or by phone (415) 749-2228.  For all performances, no children under the age of 5 are permitted

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment