An old tale with a heightened malevolence

This year’s spooky production of A Christmas Carol is a Victorian vision quest set in malefic 19th-century London. At the foreboding Masonic Temple, the winter home for the Montford Park Players, you will witness the birth of oddities, a heightened malevolence and a final twist of evil in this trippy take on the Dickens classic. 

Director Kevin Smith brings a twof-old freshness to this year’s production as he joins the Montford Park Players and finally gets to work on A Christmas Carol. For years Smith has envisioned an eerie, creepy Carol, often creating amorphous costumes for the ghoulish ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. Smith’s realization of industrial England infuses the sinister underbelly that Dickens saw in the wretched social conditions of the underclass with a ghoulish, freaky flair.

Since its first publication on Dec. 17th, 1843, Dickens’ Carol has had many successful and dubious incarnations. Smith however, has a great respect for Dickens’ work, staying true to the text and away from sugary Scrooge transformations, innocent gaiety and heart-burning morals.

Don’t worry — this is still A Christmas Carol. Bob Cratchit (Paul G. Clarke) is still the pitiful underling; Mrs. Cratchit (Bri Tureff), followed by a bedraggled brood, still wears the pants. Tiny Tim (Jonah Hauser) is thankfully not a frog. And Scrooge (Peter Brezny) remains an ornery old man. Within this timeworn tale, Smith and the cast manage to eke out the latent evil in Dickens’ text. Doom lingers past the curtain’s close despite Scrooge’s evening-long transmogrification. 

Smith came to the Montford Park Players and presented the board with the complete “creepy” Carol concept. After 34 years of production, the board members embraced Smith’s distinctive, darker approach, inviting him to direct this year’s production.

This year’s production is neither traditional nor tame, and Smith admits that there have been some minor hurdles in realizing his vision. A few were aghast upon hearing that Paul G. Clarke would not be playing Scrooge, after nine years as the miserly curmudgeon. Some ideas have had to die, but Smith just “kept stepping over dead bodies,” maintaining his level of spook.

Smith has been impressed by the professional enthusiasm brought to the stage by the community theater. The cast jumped on board the chilling endeavor, “plugging in ideas and really getting into their parts.” Many of the male actors, at the request of head costume designer Xanath Espina, and co-designer Harper Shannon, grew out their hair and mutton chops to achieve an authentic, coattail wearing, cane bearing, industrial-era look.

The cast is a cohesive team, all readily embracing and contributing fresh energy to the tale. Choreographer Kristi DeVille takes an abstract approach to the good ol’ knees-up courtly jig by bringing twisting and writhing movements to the Crachit Christmas. At a recent rehearsal the cast enjoyed the evolution of these inorganic gestures directed by DeVille and Smith. All were eager to twist, contort and hiss to the chilling tunes.

Leering, oblique buildings complement the haunting cast. Akin to the sets of early Weimar film, the sets of the Christmas Carol bring expressionistic paranoia to Dickens' grimy, lamp-lit London. Smith’s previous work at The Magnetic Field in the River Arts District, helped spark his imagination for hallucinogenic possibilities.

The original scrims used in the Masonic Temple’s theater productions, painted by Thomas Moses in Chicago in the 1920s, “would have been perfect,” said Smith of the elaborate, altar-like images. However, many of these drops are owned by the Scottish Rite (an affiliate group of the Masonic Temple order), and must remain hidden from public view, high in the Temples’ rafters. But Smith wanted to go all out. He spent weeks pulling doors and panels from dumpsters, even pulling decrepit ceiling tiles from the temple’s water-damaged third floor, all contributing to the set’s organic evolution for next to nothing.

For a night of sinister specters, wan wraiths and a pinch of cheer, Smith’s creepy Carol is not to be missed.

— Rachael Inch is a freelance writer living in Asheville.

who: Montford Park Players
what: A Christmas Carol
where: Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway St., downtown Asheville
when: Dec. 8 through Dec. 23 (7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets $6 to $12. Thursday, Dec. 8 and Thursday, Dec. 15 are “pay what we’re worth” nights and a portion of all proceeds will be contributed to the Masonic Temple, which, despite recent renovation needs some support and a bit of a facelift.

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