BWW Reviews: Actors Theatre's CHRISTMAS CAROL Rings Anew
Amid the interplay of new (Humana Festival), recent ("Tribes," "The Last Five Years") and classic ("Our Town," "Love's Labours Lost") that make up a season at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the company has for decades made the most of two ever-reliable holiday chestnuts: the Halloween horror of "Dracula" and the yuletide magic of "A Christmas Carol." But where the company has made minor tweaks from year to year to keep the scares of "Dracula" fresh and unpredictable, Louisvillians have made "A Christmas Carol" a holiday agenda item for two reasons: its quality, and its consistency.
(In fact, former Actors artistic director Jon Jory remarked a few years ago that after taking a directorial approach that pushed Dickens' social consciousness to the forefront, he received not insubstantial audience backlash.)
So when Actors' perennial Ebenezer Scrooge, longtime company member William McNulty, announced during last year's curtain call that 2014 would see a complete aesthetic overhaul, imaginations inside the theater and out went to work. Returning director Drew Fracher and his design team have not disappointed: this year's rendition of "A Christmas Carol" features a reduced set, brand-new costumes, and refined lighting and soundscapes that explore Dickens' classic anew.
The heart of the show, the redemptive power of Christmas spirit, is still in place and beating heartily. But for certain elements that have been streamlined and pared back, others have not been adjusted to compensate for certain necessary levels of theatricality.
Set designer Antje Ellermann has replaced the proscenium-spanning set unit, complete with stage-traversing-walking bridge, London rooftops rising in the distance, and central turntable for rapid (relatively speaking, according to the designers) scene changes. In its place are modular structures and set pieces arising from stage traps. The economy of the change is exceptional, and the swiftness the mechanisms afford for traveling through time and space are exciting. However - with the exception of McNulty, who employs such minimalism in his self-directed turn as Van Helsing in "Dracula" - the ensemble largely does not employ an acting style that fills in the missing pieces of this world. Their focus seems very localized, and thus, very small. At other moments, such as in the pivotal Scrooge/Marley scene, the blocking aims to take up so much real estate at such a fevered pace, that the impact of the scene is lost.
Similar choices that do attempt to go grand inadvertently work against their intention. Actor Lee Palmer is smaller in stature than the traditional casting of The Ghost of Christmas Present - though he does play the role with zest and conviction - but his grand robe is so voluminous that it actually dwarfs him (Though the ample application of Christmas bounty makes an immediate statement about the virility of the holiday spirit). The imposing presence of Christmas Future is taken to the Nth degree - but a grand spectacle can overstay its welcome. By and large, though, costume designer Kristopher Castle has brought a bright and bold new look to that is refreshing after so many years, with great attention to period detail.
The cast, a mix of returning veterans and fresh faces, do effective work in challenging Scrooge's black heart. Andy Gaukel brings his larger-than-life spirit back to both Fred and Mr. Fezziwig again. Though her Belle is a bit weak, Emily Stout complements Gaukel's nephew with a hard-nosed and humorous take on his wife. Scrooge is lucky he makes a flattering first impression on her; he might not survive the encounter a day earlier. Sherman Fracher is the life of the party as a woefully, gleefully off-key Mrs. Fezziwig. And McNulty once again brings a satisfied malevolence to the lead role, giving Scrooge a dimension that keeps him from being irredeemably cold. Though he does not seem entirely irretrievable at first due to this note of mirth, his redemption is well-earned and heartwarming.
Though uneven, this new interpretation of "A Christmas Carol" still has the intended effect: Scrooge is reborn on Christmas Day, our spirits are renewed, our Christmas seasons made a touch more complete. For the elements that misfire this time, there is plenty of ambition to be admired, and plenty of time to explore and arrive at the right intermingling of all the elements. After all, this is one Christmas classic that is not going anywhere.
Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"
At Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through Dec. 23
For more information, go to www.actorstheatre.org.