A Christmas Carol in a delightful, unique, immersive production at Campbell House

Thomas Gough & Christopher Fowler. Costume & prop design by Chelsea Driver. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

The Three Ships Collective and Soup Can Theatre have teamed up to present a delightful, unique, immersive production of holiday favourite A Christmas Carolwith original text by Justin Haigh, direction by Sarah Thorpe and musical direction by Pratik Gandhi—opening last night at Toronto’s Campbell House Museum. Incorporating live music and song, this version of the Charles Dickens classic ranges around the various rooms at Campbell House; the dynamic, effective staging taking us through time and space as we follow in the footsteps of Ebenezer Scrooge’s eye-opening, heart-wrenching and frightening journey of enlightenment and redemption.

This version of A Christmas Carol has a dark, Gothic edge that goes beyond the staging in a historic house that surely has ghosts of its own. Opening in the basement room opposite the kitchen, which serves as Scrooge’s office in the present and Fezziwig’s in the past, our tale opens with a haunting solo violin version of a familiar Christmas carol (performed by actor Amy Marie Wallace), as Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (played with affable put-upon optimism by William Matthews) huddles over his desk, trying to keep warm as the coal fire dies.

Joining us as narrator and guide is the ghost of Jacob Marley (Christopher Fowler, nicely combining gravitas and melancholy), who looks on as Scrooge arrives (Thomas Gough, exuding stone cold malice and disdain), adding an extra chill to the already glacial office. Rebuffing a dinner invitation from his nephew Fred (played with jovial cheer by John Fray) and a request for a donation from two local philanthropists (the earnest Jim Armstrong and the crisp Kholby Wardell), Scrooge goes on to later refuse the pleas of a young woman (Tamara Freeman, in a moving, impassioned performance) whose injured father and struggling family are facing foreclosure of their home on Christmas Day.

Left alone in his home after vexing his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (played with feisty cheek by Alex Dallas), Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old friend/former partner Marley—and his journey of reclamation at the hands of three spirits begins: the Ghost of Christmas Past (an ethereal, eerily calm turn from Wallace), the Ghost of Christmas Present (a hilariously rowdy, brutally honest Christopher Lucas) and the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (played with eerie, imperious silence by Tiffany Martin).

The alternate back story on Scrooge’s youth (Little Scrooge played with adorable, wide-eyed sweetness by Makenna Beatty, who also plays Tiny Tim; in rotation throughout the run with Chloe Bradt) reveals a loving home, with a father (Fray) who made bad financial decisions and subsequently forced to leave his wife and two young children at Christmas for a three-year sentence in debtors’ prison; this makes Scrooge’s miserly ways all the more poignant and his callous disregard for the destitute all the more despicable. The shy, introverted young Scrooge (played with wallflower likability by Mike Hogan) who falls in love with the adventurous extrovert Belle (Martin, with lovely, playful forwardness) at his mentor/boss Fezziwig’s (a jolly, hearty Armstrong, with Dallas as Fezziwig’s well-matched wife) rollicking Christmas office party later takes over the business—and we see the money-grasping materialism start to take hold, destroying his engagement to Belle and distancing him from the world.

And as Scrooge’s heart softens over the nostalgia of good times and lost love, it begins to break when he sees the hardship at the Cratchit house—and how, even in the most dire of circumstances, Bob and wife Emily (played with warmth, pragmatic perseverance and fierceness by Margo MacDonald) put on a brave face to make the best holiday celebration they can for their children. Then, the terror at the realization of his own mortality, and how all he strived to gain in this world can be sold off to local pawn dealer Old Joe (an edgy, menacing turn from Hogan). His heart and soul reclaimed, he joins his fellow men for the holiday, reaching out with newfound warmth and generosity to those around him (lovely work from Gough on Scrooge’s transformation).

It’s a classic cautionary tale that still speaks to us today—perhaps even more so, now that hard-right conservatives are emerging in positions of power all over the world. The hard-hearted philosophy that the poor should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is unfortunately still alive and well. And maybe a certain president and premier would benefit from some ghostly visitations.

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Top row: Mike Hogan, Tiffany Martin, Christopher Fowler, Christopher Lucas, Amy Marie Wallace, Kholby Wardel. Middle row: John Fray, William Matthews, Thomas Gough, Jim Armstrong. Bottom row: Margo MacDonald, Tamara Freeman, Chloe Bradt, Makenna Beatty, Alex Dallas. Costume & prop design by Chelsea Driver. Photo by Graham Isador.

A Christmas Carol continues at Campbell House Museum until December 22; check here for exact dates and times. The run officially sold out before opening, but keep an eye out on Soup Can’s Twitter and Facebook feeds for released tickets. Due to the intimate nature of the performance, audience size is limited—so you must book ahead online.

In the meantime, give a listen to host Phil Rickaby’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with actor Thomas Gough on his experience playing the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge in this unique, immersive production.

Note from the production team: Due to the immersive and mobile nature of this production, audience members will be required to stand for a significant portion of the performance. A very limited number of seats can be reserved for patrons unable to stand for extended periods of time. Please contact the Campbell House Museum at 416-597-0227 ext. 2, or antonia@campbellhousemuseum.ca, to confirm availability of these seats and to reserve in advance.

While this production is family-friendly, it does touch on some mature themes and is recommended for children 10 and older.

Note from me: Cellphone gawkers beware! Jacob Marley has his eye on you, and will silently and swiftly call you out on your naughty behaviour.

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Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.