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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Portents & prophecy as science meets spirit (or does it?) in compelling The Queen’s Conjuror

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Tim Walker, Joshua Browne & Sochi Fried in The Queen’s Conjuror – photos by John Gundy

Circlesnake Productions opened its production of Joshua Browne and Alec Toller’s The Queen’s Conjuror in The Attic Arts Hub (1402 Queen St. E., Toronto) on Thursday, directed by Toller. I caught the show last night.

A new star has recently appeared in the sky and Queen Elizabeth I (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) wants to know its meaning – particularly if it has any bearing on her reign. Scientist, magician and astrologer John Dee (Tim Walker) has been tasked with discovering the star’s meaning. He enlists the aid of scryer Edward Talbot (Joshua Browne), who is able to commune with spirits – primarily an angel called Uriel (John Fray) – who speak to him and supply him with visions.

Dee and his wife Jane (Sochi Fried) invite Talbot into their home, and find that he’s able to translate a series of strange symbols that appeared to Dee in a vision – and they begin to connect the pieces of a prophecy that seems to relate to the new star.

Their work is confounded by the torture Talbot endures during his sessions with the spirit world, as well as the suspicious, ever watchful eye of Lord William Cecil (Fray), the Queen’s advisor, who’s been set as a watchdog over the project. Working relationships evolve into friendships, and come to include Talbot’s wife Joanna (Roberts-Abdullah). How far will they go to complete the puzzle? And are Talbot’s spirits angels or demons?

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Joshua Browne & John Fray as Uriel

Lovely work from the cast in this intimate period drama, full of eerie spiritualism and ritual, signs and symbols, and the ancient science of divining from the stars, along with a touch of political intrigue. Beyond the quest for the meanings of stars and visions, The Queen’s Conjuror is about how people interpret the information they’re given – and how their subsequent actions impact on their lives.

As Dee, Walker mines the layers of a curious, learned and sharp-witted man with a passion for the truth and an eye on the Queen’s court. Possessing a logical scientific mind, he is capable of both kindness and cruelty in his pursuit; his resolve only shaken when their endeavours touch his life in a negative way. Browne gives Talbot a great combination of humility and entitlement; a gifted scryer, the price he pays for messages and visions is searing physical and emotional pain. And even he wonders if his spirit messengers come from God or the Devil. Fried’s fiercely intelligent and ambitious Jane is in the unique position of being her husband’s professional equal; a partner in his scientific and academic pursuits, she displays a quixotic passion that outstrips Dee’s. And her concern for, and care of, Talbot during his moments of collapse reveal notes of tension – of something more, something shared.

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Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Elizabeth I, with Tim Walker & Sochi Fried

Roberts-Abdullah’s Elizabeth I is regal and warm, imperious and magnanimous; she giveth and she taketh away with dispassionate efficiency. As Talbot’s wife Joanna, she is an observant, self-possessed and creative woman juggling her own work as a poet with her household duties; a nurturing, neglected wife and mother fighting for her marriage. As Uriel, Fray is menacing and manipulative; whispering secrets into Talbot’s ear and observing him as cruel child regards a distressed bug he’s been torturing. And his Cecil is a chilly and cunning authoritarian beneath the polite, charming courtier.

Portents and prophecy as science meets spirit (or does it?) in the compelling period drama The Queen’s Conjuror.

The Queen’s Conjuror continues at The Attic till Nov 20. You can get your tix in advance online – recommended, as it’s an intimate space; perfect to be a fly on the wall as the story unfolds and lives are forever changed.

Lisa Moore’s February transformed for the stage in world premiere @ Alumnae Theatre

In semi-darkness, the stage is set with two platforms on either side – the floor panels later being flipped up to create walls. Up centre is a wooden tower from which chairs and various props pieces hang. And a digital clock that reads 2:59. The tower is neat. Clever and interesting – whimsical, even. And also malevolent and looming. The Ocean Ranger oil rig. As the house lights go down and the actors emerge from the wings, we hear the sounds of deep, steady breathing. A ventilator. Yoga exercise. Darth Vader. Breath echoing, as if coming from inside a chamber.

This is the audience’s first glimpse of Lisa Moore’s play February – adapted from her novel and directed for its world premiere on the Alumnae Theatre main stage by Michelle Alexander.

Helen is having a phone conversation with her adult son John, a corporate image consultant who travels the world. Life is good and things are great. And he may have gotten a Canadian woman pregnant in Iceland. He seems callous and detached, a Bluetooth-sporting yuppie douche, and Helen demands to know what he told the woman and what he means to do about the situation. The scene shifts to a phone call from years earlier – 1982, when Helen receives word that her husband Cal perished when a snow storm hit and sunk the Ocean Ranger. The play continues its time shift from past to present and we see Helen and Cal’s courtship and marriage, and John’s early entry into being the man of the house at the age of 10. An imaginative lad and a Star Wars fan, as handy as he is with a light sabre, John is not ready – and comes to fear both commitment and submersion in water.

Told with real, often raw, emotion, February is not all doom and gloom. Resilient and good-humoured, Helen struggles with her grief, a young widow suddenly thrust into single motherhood, coping with Cal’s absence by continuing their relationship, conversing with his ghost. In middle age, she finds the courage to start making changes and she finds herself ready to bring light into her home via renovation – then, unsure but game, investigating online dating and considering the friendly contractor who is transforming her home. Meanwhile, John takes a job at a local oil company and is forced to confront his fears. It is a touching story – and, as in life, hard edges are softened with humour, with insight gained creating light in the darkness.

Director Alexander (who appeared in an Alumnae production of Private Lives several years ago), with assistant director Darwin Lyons, has done a fine job of staging Helen and John’s parallel stories. Working with producer Tabitha Keast (who is also producing a baby, its opening night just a few weeks away), Alexander has assembled an excellent design team to evoke time, place and atmosphere – with set and props by Karen McMichael, lighting by Gabriel Cropley, sound by Megan Benjafield and costumes by Peter DeFreitas.

The outstanding cast features Kathleen Jackson Allamby, Trevor Cartlidge, Justin Skye Conley, John Fray, Victoria Fuller, Lavetta Griffin and Steve Switzman. Griffin (herself a Newfoundlander, who appeared in Our Eliza at New Ideas Festival 2012) is marvelous as Helen. From a spirited young woman in love to an overwhelmed widow in mourning, dealing with the stress of raising four young kids alone, to a middle-aged woman emerging from the darkness of past and ready for a brighter future – a lovely performance. Conley does a nice job of playing John’s many layers, shifting from that scared little boy trying to be brave with his light sabre and blanket cape to a young man pretty much doing the same, minus the sabre and cape. Fray is sexy and fun as living Cal – and a supportive confidant to Helen as his ghost. Nice work from supporting cast members: Cartlidge, who juggles multiple roles, including Cal’s father Dave, and Allamby as Helen’s sister Louise, both offering good-humoured practical and emotional support to Helen in the aftermath of Cal’s death; Fuller (also from Newfoundland) playing dual roles of John’s pregnant, anxious lover Jane, as well as a good-natured, wry-witted waitress at a pub, giving Helen her ear in a scene that is both touching and funny; and Switzman is lovable, sweet and warm as Helen’s contractor Barry. The Newfoundland flavour of the characterizations is strong, assisted by dialect coach John Fleming, who also provided the voiceover work for the production.

I haven’t read the novel, but I did purchase a copy during the fabulous reception (organized by Joanne Nelson and Sandra Schneider) after the show last night. And I have it on good authority that it’s been well-adapted from page to stage by author and first-time playwright Lisa Moore, who was very pleased with the results – as was the assembled audience.

February runs until Saturday, October 6 – with a Q&A talkback with Moore, Alexander et al after the matinée tomorrow (Sun, Sept 23). For info and reservations, visit the Alumnae website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213feb.html