A tale of two Carols

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is a classic holiday tale, but local productions of the story have begun to show their age. This year, however, the Montford Park Players have refreshed their aging script, while the Parkway Playhouse examines Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol (pictured above).

Launching Christmas spirits into uber-drive, the classic holiday play A Christmas Carol gets two diverse, dynamic and fast-paced local stagings in coming days.

It should come as no surprise that the Montford Park Players would take on the Dickens classic — they’ve been performing it for three decades — but some eyebrows may arch when it gets around that this year’s version has been completely restaged, rewritten and revamped.

Meanwhile, and in a much different twist from tradition, the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville will perform the lighter-hearted Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, a critically acclaimed comical drama that tells the familiar tale from the distinct perspective of the ghost of Scrooge’s longtime business partner, Marley.

And yet both plays attempt to capture the essence of a story about the meaning of the season, and why Christmas isn’t a humbug after all.

The miser you know

The Montford Park Players may be best known for staging the state’s longest-running Shakespeare festival (which takes place each summer) as well as its Christmas play. Citing a need for a fresh take on the tale, the theater company has restaged Dickens’ story of holiday spirits, social injustice, personal priorities and ultimate redemption.

Succeeding Montford Park Players founder and retired head Hazel Robinson, C.J. Breland serves as the show’s director, script writer and creative spirit. The award-winning Asheville High School drama teacher took on the task of adjusting a script and presentation that’s barely been touched in a generation. Gone is most of the lengthy introduction, plus other Dickens narration. Instead, Dickens’ wife helps tell the story.

“Visually, this is a much more active and fast-paced show,” says MPP Managing Director John Russell. In this version, Russell reports that there are many more set changes, with ghost-clad stagehands rolling out the old (sets, on platforms) and ushering in the new. Breland’s set is simple but imaginative, and not detailed as before. Many of Dickens’ original scenes — often trimmed or cut altogether in the stage retelling – are now being included and expanded.

Some of the most dramatic changes are on Scrooge’s spiritual journey into the future. In a steely move, when Scrooge sniffs his own demise, he now sees a corpse on a deathbed, but chickens out from pulling the shroud off the face. Also new: A young couple who owe the miser rent rejoices over his departure, while Scrooge implores, “Let me see some tenderness!”

Instead of merely seeing the absent Tiny Tim’s crutch next to fireplace, we see the Cratchits mourn his death at their dining table. The already-pointed comments from the Christmas spirits are even more mocking and intimidating to Scrooge than in prior years.

Happily, tradition survives revision. Lines added are “true to what Dickens wrote. Dickens had a wonderful way with words,” declares Mike Vaniman, 72, a nearly lifelong actor in his fifth year as MPP’s Scrooge. His Scrooge is ever-so-subtly anxious and fearful, eager to evade punishment for not repenting. Marley’s insightful visit “leaves me really shook up,” Vaniman says. “It’s time to change — or else. The (four) ghost encounters take him to task, and wake him up to generosity. It’s wonderful to go from this sour, stingy, frightened little man who gives no slack to anyone to someone who gives. It’s a great story of transformation.”

Marley’s perspective

Tom Mula developed Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol from a novella into an award-winning play and performed it as a one-man show. It was a huge hit in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and later played to audiences across the country. National Public Radio has broadcast it regularly for seven seasons.

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol is also the first holiday production by Parkway Playhouse. The show’s director, Andrew Gall (who’s also Parkway Playhouse’s managing and artistic director), first encountered the re-envisioned Carol while working at the Goodman Theatre.

Although the play is fun — much more so than the original in many respects — the messages are serious.

“Humor is central to the play,” notes Gall. “The humor comes not just from the story itself, which is pretty familiar. But the ‘takes’ on some of the characters are from a totally different point of view — which takes you off guard.”

Marley is still Scrooge’s dead and long-overshadowed business partner. And true to form, he’s grouchy and in chains. But in this play, to prove his worthiness and save his own spirit from hellish eternity, deceased Marley’s spirit has 24 hours to redeem Scrooge’s soul from stubborn and stingy ways. This challenge provides the central plot.

One of the funnier scenes is a spinoff on Marley’s ghost visiting Scrooge. “Marley must get Scrooge to repent. And he is not at all confident he will do it,” Gall reveals. “Scrooge capitalizes on this. So a very familiar scene becomes completely different — and funny.”

From Marley’s view, we discover more about his and Scrooge’s inner humbug, as well as their softer sides. Not surprisingly, in this version, the famed miser also takes a backseat. “The focus is entirely on Marley. It is his story,” Gall explains. “We all know what happens to Scrooge. This play tells us why it happened.”

With four actors playing multiple roles, subtly distinguished by a single accessory or prop, it’s a creative and affordable way to do a professional Christmas show. The actors (who take turns narrating) were cast partly for their skills in imaginative storytelling and a “warm sense of humor,” Gall says. “This show is completely driven by actors. The narrative is the most important element of the story. So we looked for performers who were interesting speakers, and who would not be intimidated by big, broad choices.”

[Peter Zamplas is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to the Xpress]

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol runs Dec. 8-10 at Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., Asheville. 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. $8/adults, $6/students and $4/children 12 and younger. Non-perishable food donations will be collected for Manna Food Bank. Tickets: 254-1320. Info: 254-5146, or www.montfordparkplayers.org. The Parkway Playhouse presents Tom Mula’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol Dec. 14-16 at the Burnsville Town Center. 7:30 p.m. $10-15. For directions and ticket inforation, call 682-4285 or visit www.parkwayplayhouse.com.

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