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.

A Christmas Carol 1
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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Mental health takes centre stage in the mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s)

Skipping Stones Theatre gives us a new, contemporary take on the Shakespeare classic brings mental health front and centre with its mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s), directed by Sean O’Brien, supplemented by additional Shakespearian text; and opening last night to a sold out house at b current Studio in Artscape Wychwood Barns. Here, we have a Hamlet who’s literally and figuratively beside himself, played by two actors; a young man struggling with emerging Bipolar I as his world crumbles around him.

I never get tired of seeing how different theatre companies interpret and adapt Hamlet. Opening with “To be or not to be…,” Hamlet’s (Tristan Claxton and Kate McArthur) emerging mental illness is established off the top of Hamlet(s). The double casting turns soliloquies into Hamlet’s conversations with himself; and the effective tag team nature of his dialogue reveals a troubled, fractured mind rolling through manic, mixed and depressive episodes—with McArthur’s side of Hamlet taking on an inner voice quality.

This adaptation also examines the responses of friends and family to a loved one’s mental health crisis. Ophelia (Breanna Maloney) is featured more prominently, taking on a more active role; mindful and concerned about Hamlet’s welfare, she enlists the assistance of Hamlet’s friend Horatio (Liz Der). Conflicted and torn about telling her father Polonius (Mike Vitorovich) about Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, and unable to find another way to help him, Ophelia chooses to place her trust in a parent; this makes her subsequent mental breakdown following Polonius’s death—at Hamlet’s hand—all the more heartbreaking. And one can see how and why Horatio would consider taking her own life after all attempts at helping her friend have failed—and those who were supposed to help and care for him have only betrayed or neglected Hamlet.

Claudius (Tim MacLean) and Gertrude (Shalyn McFaul) are also concerned—he out of fear of exposure and losing his ill-gotten throne, and she out of guilt and neglected love—but are after a quick fix for Hamlet’s problem. Enter Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Felix Beauchamp) and Guildenstern (Tamara Freeman), summoned to cheer Hamlet up; but instead of genuinely listening to Hamlet, they offer mere positive spins to counter his intimations of what ails him.

Unable to level off and organize his rapid-fire thoughts and emotions, Hamlet’s in no shape to enact revenge on Claudius for the murder of his father. Directly responsible for the death of Polonius, and perhaps also feeling responsible for Ophelia’s subsequent breakdown and death, Hamlet eventually faces off with the vengeful Laertes (Erin Eldershaw) in what’s being sold as a friendly fencing match. Surprisingly calm and ready for death—one gets the impression that he may be opting for suicide by vendetta.

Remarkable, gripping, lazer-focused performances from Claxton and McArthur as the dual Hamlets; both revealing a full range of struggling, conflicted emotional and psychological experience—from dejected despair, to playful antics, quixotic exchanges and a-ha flashes of inspiration. It’s raw, real and present—fascinating, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking to watch.

Equally fine work from the rest of the ensemble, with Maloney’s ethereal, loving Ophelia and Der’s sweet, nerdy Horatio clearly the only ones who are truly on Hamlet’s side; desperate to help their friend, they’re both frustrated and baffled as they grasp for a solution. MacLean gives a slick, corporate edge to the pompous, entitled Claudius; and there’s a tinge of melancholy to McFaul’s cool, detached Gertrude. Vitorovich gives us some great comic turns as the intelligent but verbose Polonius and the cheeky, sharp-witted Gravedigger; and Eldershaw offers up compelling performances as the irreverent, fiery Laertes and the divalike First Player. And Beauchamp and Freeman are a great pair as the affable but duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are more concerned about serving at Claudius’s pleasure than they are with helping their friend.

Those who aren’t protective of Hamlet’s health and welfare aren’t necessarily bad people—some are merely self-serving, clueless, in denial or negligent. And even those who strive to truly help find themselves spinning their wheels due to lack of awareness and subsequently missing what resources may be employed to help. Just like real life. A long neglected aspect of our health care system, we’re gradually seeing mental health come to the forefront. More of us are realizing that mental health is health.

Hamlet(s) continues in the b current Studio Theatre until November 24, with performances tonight (November 17) and November 22-24; please note the 7:30pm curtain time. Advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue, with a short run—at the door.

Head & heart, & two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense & Sensibility

Photo by Dave Fitzpatrick: Conor Ling, Jackie Mahoney & Tamara Freeman

Amicus Productions takes us to the early 1800s England of Jane Austen with Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Maureen Lukie, assisted by Ted Powers, and currently running in the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills.

Mrs. Dashwood (Peta Bailey) and her daughters Elinor (Tamara Freeman), Marianne (Jackie Mahoney) and Margaret (Sara Douglas) have just learned that their beloved husband and father has died. Adding insult to injury, their Norland Park estate is being taken over by the Dashwood male heir John (Andrew Horbatuik) and his wife Fanny (Mandi Sunshine), and they must now find a place to live. During the transfer of ownership, Fanny’s brother Edward (Conor Ling) comes to visit, and an attachment forms between him and Elinor. With high and rich family hopes for Edward’s marriage, Fanny blocks the relationship just as the Dashwood women learn of a cottage that’s available on the estate of a relative in Devonshire. And Elinor and Edward barely have a chance to say goodbye.

It’s an extreme downscale for the Dashwoods; they can bring no horses and only one servant (Horbatuik as Thomas). But they find a great, warm welcome from the high-spirited, eccentric Sir John (Rob Candy) and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Jenn Keay). And their quiet cottage life gets interesting with the appearance of Sir John’s friend Colonel Brandon (Matthew Payne) and a dashing young noble Willoughby (Rouvan Silogix), who rescues Marianne after a fall. Both have eyes for Marianne, but Marianne only has eyes for Willoughby, who returns her attentions with romantic gestures and implications of marriage.

Marianne’s bliss is short-lived, though, as Willoughby gets sent to London by his wealthy aunt. And Brandon has some distressing information about Willoughby’s history, which he confides to Elinor. Meanwhile, in her never-ending crusade to find husbands for the two older Dashwood sisters, Mrs. Jennings plans a trip to London to enjoy the balls and diversions of the season. And things get even more complicated for Elinor when their travel companion Lucy Steele (Riley Nelson) confesses a secret four-year-old engagement with Edward!

Things go from bad to worse in London when the Dashwood sisters have an unpleasant, awkward encounter with Willoughby at a ball, and learn via neighbourhood gossips (Lindsay Bryan and Sharon Kamiel) that he is engaged to the wealthy Miss Grey (Bryan). On their way home, escorted by Brandon, Elinor and Marianne stop at the home of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter Mrs. Palmer (Bryan) and Mr. Palmer (Horbatuik), where Marianne comes down with a life-threatening infection.

But don’t worry, the girls get home safe and new, happier revelations emerge.

There is a youthful edge to this adaptation; full of heart and charm. For those familiar with the book and the film adaptation by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, Swale has added some scenes that we would previously have only guessed at. One in particular highlights Willoughby’s misery at his reliance on a rich relation, and his regret at choosing money over love.

With shouts to the design team: Arash Eshghpour (set), Karlos Griffith (lighting), Dave Fitzpatrick (sound) and Lindsay Forde (costume); and to choreographer Karen Millyard.

Lovely work from the cast in this nicely staged adaptation; the scenes weaving in and out, shifting in time and space with well-paced precision—shouts to director Lukie and stage manager Cherie Oldenburg.

Stand-out performances include Freeman’s Elinor; a complex, layering of sensible, kind, discreet and accommodating, coupled with deeply felt emotional responses and heroic efforts to keep them in check. Throughout, Elinor is the confessor; hearing many secrets and troubles, but unable to divulge them, including the secrets of her own heart. Mahoney’s Marianne is the polar opposite of Elinor; high-spirited and stubborn, she has a passionate soul and wears her heart on her sleeve. Her romantic tendencies get a harsh dose of reality, but rather than being destroyed, she is tempered and becomes more circumspect. And Douglas’s Margaret is charming; an adorably precocious, whip-smart naturalist in the making, she sees more than the grown-ups think and doesn’t have their internal editor at play.

Ling gives a great turn as the painfully shy, bookish and affable Edward; and he does hilarious double duty as Edward’s buffoonish younger brother Robert. Candy and Keay are a laugh riot as the dynamic duo chatterboxes—the jolly and sociable Sir John and the one-woman OkCupid Mrs. Jennings—always up on the latest gossip and ready for a party. And nice work from Payne as the honourable, wounded and introspective Brandon; Silogix’s cheeky, handsome romantic Willoughby; and Sunshine’s waspish, greedy Fanny.

Head and heart, and two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility continues at the Papermill Theatre until Feb 11; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

You can keep up with Amicus Productions on Twitter and Facebook.