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Center Stage

An old cuss, a small cast and a Christmas myth

12/10/2014

“A Christmas Carol.” Repertory Theater of Iowa, Kum’n’Go Theater.  Fri.-Sat, Dec. 12-13, 7:30 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., Dec. 17-21, 7:30 p.m. Sun., Dec. 14; and Sat.-Sun., Dec. 20-21, 2 p.m.

“A Christmas Carol.” Repertory Theater of Iowa, Kum’n’Go Theater. Fri.-Sat, Dec. 12-13, 7:30 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., Dec. 17-21, 7:30 p.m. Sun., Dec. 14; and Sat.-Sun., Dec. 20-21, 2 p.m.

It is as if the story has been around forever. The hard-hearted old miser, visited by night spirits, awakens to the joy of Christmas. It is a kind of myth that is endlessly adaptable. “A Christmas Carol” had this magic from the first, too. No sooner did Charles Dickens dream up the story in 1843 than he took it on stage. He worked it into his lectures.

In Des Moines, Repertory Theater of Iowa (RPI) intends to honor “the heart of things.” So says Amanda Petefish-Schrag, brought in from Iowa State University to direct. Petefish-Schrag knows the other “Carol” adaptations — everything from musicals to Mr. Magoo — but she likes this Larry Carpenter version (written in the 1970s) for its “clarity of message.”

“This one takes us on a journey,” she says. “It takes us with Scrooge as he goes from isolation to community.”

While the director doesn’t hesitate to call it a “redemption story,” Richard Maynard, her leading man, insists there’s more to it.

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Maynard is playing Scrooge again — his fourth time in the role — and he claims it is “actually more fun than ever.”

He has experience with the script, going back to when he worked with the playwright outside Boston. In those days, Maynard played Scrooge’s whipping boy, the clerk Bob Crachit — father to the frail Tiny Tim — so the actor can’t overlook the other dimensions of the story.

“It’s also a portrait of a terrible time for working people,” he explains. “A time when a man like Crachit was no more than chattel.”

Maynard goes so far as to say the Christmas setting may be incidental. “Christmas may provide the best vehicle, but remember, Scrooge is a stubborn old cuss,” he says. “When we see a man like that change, we realize it can happen at any time or any age.”

As for Maynard’s director, she enjoys such a different perspective on the show. She says that is “part of the excitement.”

“Outside of the lead, everyone takes on several roles,” she points out.

Dickens gives us a crowded city portrait, but Petefish-Schrag has a small cast including younger players like Charlie Reese, fresh from “Cabaret,” and Sarah Brazier, the wicked teenager of “The Crucible.” Everyone goes through changes — even Marley’s ghost slips off his chains and returns as someone else — and this, says the director, is “what really transports the audience, not the magical journeys through time and space.”

“Some versions try to tell ‘Christmas Carol’ through tricks in the lighting and sound,” Maynard agrees. “In ours, the tricks are only in support of the story. The richness is in how it plays.”

After all, he says, “The great stories never grow old.”

Overheard in the Lobby: Jay Jagim, RTI’s gifted designer, is in the hospital. The set and its changes remain his concept, worked up by his partners. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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