Charles Dickens was never one to shy away from good old-fashioned sentimentality, but his A Christmas Carol is downright shellacked with it. Stage versions of the story typically either give it one more half-hearted buff, or try somewhat desperately to scrape away the goo with a little irony. Now, however, we may rightfully speak of a third option: Cram the whole damn thing into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and populate it with Children of the Corn. Oh, and throw in a little cross-dressing for good measure.
In any event, this is more or less what Kevin Smith attempts in the version he directs for Montford Park, currently playing at the Masonic Temple in downtown Asheville. The result is wildly creative, daring and loads of fun — for the whole family. I won’t go so far as to call it scary, but maybe that’s okay. After all, it ain’t Halloween. Still, if you want to make people scream, having someone offstage rattling a thunder sheet maybe isn’t the best way to do it.
In the Asheville theatre scene, Smith is perhaps better known as a set designer. About a year ago, he designed the set of When Jekyll Met Hyde at The Magnetic Theatre, and like that set, this one also seems to be almost alive. In their evocation of Caligari, the skewed and starkly urban perspectives create an appropriately spooky atmosphere for the paranormal goings on of the plot. I won’t go into much detail here, since part of the fun is the surprise of seeing how Smith stages the well-worn episodes of the story. But let this much be said: he puts the Masonic Temple to very effective use.
But Smith has had some first-rate technical help too: Xanath Espina has given Montford’s at times inconsistent costume design a greater unity, and Brian Claflin’s soundscape is dramatic and genuinely creepy, as is Jason Williams’s lighting design. Williams in fact seems to be the only designer in town who can light the Masonic Temple stage in a way that seems intentional rather than coerced. His integration of lighting with the Temple’s own gorgeous hand-painted backdrops is truly remarkable.
I’m not sure exactly how much of the show’s choreography is the work of Kristi Deville, but the Christmas Past segment features choral movement worthy of a professional dance theatre. Here everything seemed to come together: lighting, sound, movement, and story — and the effect was powerful, even wrenching, and certainly memorable.
In a word, the show would seem the work of paid professionals, were it not for a few unfortunate missteps. The Ghost of Christmas Future, who should be the scariest of them all, is instead (through no fault of her own) an almost comical let-down. As Scrooge, Peter Brezny does an admirable job of holding firm to the emotional arc of his character, and even manages to be terrified by this silly speechless spook, but for the audience the cognitive dissonance is too great.
And in general the show places perhaps too much of its bets on technical splendor and creative staging and not enough on acting. A Christmas Carol, for all its sentimentality, is nothing if not an intensely human story, and no amount of bells and whistles can sell the story as effectively as good acting rooted in clear intentions and emotional realities. There are certainly some standout performances here: T. Butterfly Lowe fills the stage as The Ghost of Christmas Present, Dwight Chiles is charming as Fred, and Sean David Robinson and Courtney De Gennaro have a nice turn together as The Young Scrooge and Belle. But otherwise, the actors seem a bit adrift. Thanks to Brezny’s herculean efforts in what must be an emotionally exhausting role, the show holds together. But one can’t help imagining what it might have been had the obviously very eager actors been given a bit more guidance.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, presented by The Montford Park Players. Directed by Kevin Smith. Stage Managed by Anna Boersma. Choreography by Kristi DeVille. Costume Design by Xanath Espina. Lighting Design by Jason Williams. Technical Direction by Laura Lowe. Sound Design by Brian Claflin. Starring Peter Brezny; Dakota Bean, Mac Bolak, Dwight Chiles, Paul G. Clark, Carol Lily Cloos, T. Rose Cloos, Hannah Conway, Sharon Cordell, Frances Covington, Courtney DeGennaro, Robert Edwards, Bob Foor, Jonah Hauser, Reuben Hauser, Grant Hipps, Lily Knight, T. Butterfly Lowe, Emme Poteet, Will Poteet, Molly Riddle, Sean David Robinson, Kent Smith, Zim Stewart, Noah Tanner, Bri Tureff, Mike Vaniman, Tracy Walker. Through Dec. 23, Thursdays – Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; December 10, 11, 17, 18, matinees at 2:30 p.m. All shows at the Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway, Downtown Asheville. For more info: 254-5146 or http://www.montfordparkplayers.org.