Eugene Weekly : Theater : 11.29.07

More Joy, Bigger Ghosts
Willamette Rep brings back the holiday classic

An ensemble of storytellers clad in gray gathers slowly on stage, eerie music muting their greetings and a light mist scuttling across the boards. That’s the cool and magical beginning to Willamette Rep’s second annual production of A Christmas Carol. The show is spiced up from last year with singing, humor and bigger ghost scenes, but audience members are still treated to a version that doesn’t skimp on Dickens’ rich language or moral weight.

Scrooge (Richard Elmore) tells off Bob Cratchit (Frank Muhr). PHOTO: CLIFF COLES

Director Kirk Boyd emphasizes the theatricality of David McCann’s faithful, wordy script. There are 10 actors continually changing roles and serving as narrators, juggling words and action. Theatricality comes naturally to most of the ensemble. Helene Morse and Scott Shirk are particularly adept at developing characters and connecting with the audience. Yet the emphasis on play is at times overdone. Benjamin Newman is highly entertaining, but he seems overly conscious of this fact and monopolizes audience attention by being a little too interesting.

A Christmas Carol faces challenges in any adaptation. The complete transformation of a human soul in less than two hours is hard to do, even if you do have three spirits helping you along. Richard Elmore, who plays only Ebenezer Scrooge, is a wonderful curmudgeon. He faces fear, death and humiliation with drama. He gives to the poor with cheer, but he doesn’t change enough from one man to another. In the whirlwind of words and movement, Scrooge should take a few moments of reflection.

In the end, it is the humanity of the ensemble that draws the audience into the show. Mindy Linder’s performance is honest; from her delight in wordplay at the ensemble’s introduction to a beautiful scene as Scrooge’s once-loved Belle, she keeps faith with Dickens. Richard Leebrick looks and feels like a spooky Dickens denizen. Caleb Pruitt as Tiny Tim is adorable as is Frank Muhr as his hardworking, downtrodden father.

Left from last year’s bleaker version of the same script are the set and some costumes. I appreciate Boyd’s decision to keep Norm Spencer’s set simple and let the audience use their imaginations. Lighting director Michael Peterson helps people know where to look and how to feel, but the lighting is sparse as well. Heather DeBey’s costumes are key in helping the actors play multiple roles. Beginning with a simple, nearly modern base, actors add skirts, frock coats, mobcaps and other pieces to change quickly and without fuss. DeBey does this excellent work on a shoestring. It wouldn’t be surprising to find her doing excellent work with an actual shoestring, but if WillRep is to make a yearly go of Carol, I would like to see them invest more in the high quality, conscientiously tailored costumes associated with professional theater.

Much has been made of Boyd’s luck and skill in nabbing Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s resident sound designer Todd Barton. Barton is a man who admits he derives great pleasure in “finding strange sounds on a daily basis,” such as the haunted echo of chains dropped against an old oil tank. I listened for old oil tanks but only heard the sounds of ghosts and early industrial London. His work helped fill in some of the theatrical gaps left by the simplicity of the show.

Technical and wardrobe showmanship were saved for the ghosts, who were a big, snazzy splash against the clean and simple production. The contrast jarred me; I didn’t always like it. But Scrooge didn’t seem to like it either, so perhaps that was the point.

The play is still a little bleak. It’s Dickens. With such inherent bleakness, it may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas tradition. What Boyd has offered us in this staging of Carol is a journey to joy. Unlike other holiday events, where I often leave feeling I’ve been beaten over the head with the Yule log of cheer, this play allows me to find cheer on my own terms. There is probably more Scrooge than Tiny Tim in most of us, and this production of A Christmas Carol is refreshing as a holiday activity. We are allowed to think our way into the meaning of Christmas, to judge, reflect and redeem ourselves along with Ebenezer Scrooge.