BWW Reviews: Artists' Exchange Presents Heartwarming Anniversary CHRISTMAS CAROL

Performances of A Christmas Carol are an especially beloved tradition at Cranston's Artists' Exchange. Charles Dickens' classic tale rings in the Christmas season for the cast, crew, and theatergoers alike, but the production marks another annual celebration for the company as well. When Artists' Exchange opened its doors to the community a decade ago, A Christmas Carol was one of the first featured events on its theatrical calendar, and this year's 10th anniversary Carol celebrates this notable milestone with a staging that goes straight to the message of redemption, charity, and genuine good will at heart of Dickens' story.

Director Clara Weishahn takes an engaging approach to her adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The opening scene unfolds in a modern-day living room, full of family and friends celebrating Christmastime together. This production's emphasis on an ensemble performance is evident from the start, as one by one, the guests begin to recite Dickens' familiar lines, gathering together for an impromptu reenactment of the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. The round-robin storytelling continues until the assembly decides it needs a proper Ebenezer, and as children and adults scramble back and forth with bits and pieces of costuming, the real Scrooge (played by Tom Chace) appears at the door. The group immediately goes silent and still, and the setting transitions - through the clever use of a child's crayon drawing - to Victorian-era London and the frigid offices of Scrooge and Marley's counting house.

Props and sets are kept to a minimum for this Christmas Carol. Still, the simplicity of the staging works well within the storytelling, effectively using the intimate black box space at Artists' Exchange's Theatre 82 to best advantage. With a strong emphasis on character over spectacle, this up-close presentation keeps Carol's central themes and issues more immediately at hand for the audience.

Tom Chace is a perfectly flinty, cantankerous Scrooge. Chace has wonderful expression; he sneers disgustedly at charity workers and carolers alike and cynically dismisses the warnings of Marley's ghost, then softens his performance as the shadows of Scrooge's past start breaking down the walls around his hard heart. He well portrays Scrooge's grief and regret when reliving moments with his late sister and lost love, and immerses himself fully in the ebullient joy of the Fezziwig Christmas party. As Scrooge interacts with each ghost, Chace shades his performance to subtly blend together the character's long-established hardness with his gradual enlightenment and growing repentance.

The other members of the ensemble cast deserve much applause for their deft handling of multiple roles. Standout characters include Beth Alianiello's vivacious performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Roger Lemelin's thoroughly merry Mr. Fezziwig, Harold Ashton's wearied Jacob Marley, and Simone Pellegrino's adorable Tiny Tim. Bob Macaux presents Scrooge's nephew Fred as genuinely warm-hearted and utterly earnest in his defense of the Christmas season, while Chris White portrays Bob Cratchit as a consummately devoted family man. David Kane delivers strong character work, both as the hardened, young Scrooge of the past and as Fred's comically tipsy party guest in the present day.

Weishahn adds other intriguing and thoughtful touches to her vision for specific characters in this production of A Christmas Carol. Attention to small details - such as appropriately aging the Cratchit children from the spirit of the present to the shade of the future - enriches the overall narrative, while seemingly simple theatrical effects are used to establish the atmosphere and tone for each of Scrooge's ghostly visitors. Each apparition also appears to Scrooge accompanied by a chorus of uncanny, spectral young women. The foursome's unsettling, continued presence shepherds Scrooge through the past, present, and future, enhancing the ominous sound of Marley's rattling chains and echoing each of the ghosts' most forceful proclamations with eerie, emphatic whispers.

Though this is likely one of the smaller-scale Christmas Carols offered in Rhode Island this season, Artists' Exchange does the tale proud, and the ensemble's very enjoyable performance absolutely comes from the heart.

Artists' Exchange presents A Christmas Carol through Saturday, December 21, 2013. Performances at Theatre 82 in Cranston run through Sunday, December 15, and tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. The production will move to the historic Park Theatre for the final dates of its run, December 19-21; tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door. See www.artists-exchange.org for more details and to purchase tickets.




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