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A Dickens of a Party

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- Christmas sparks the imagination, and imagination will add some sparks to the scenes when Director Mark Costello's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" comes to the stage over the next two weekends at Theatre Albany.

The Christmas favorite of spiritual intervention leading to redemption has been adapted countless times since Dickens swiftly penned the short Christmas tale that haunted him until he published it -- essentially as a vanity press project -- on Dec. 19, 1843. While many of those adaptations for books, readings, stage performances, film and television have been true to the original, many have had twists, such as updating the language, turning dialogue into song, modernizing the setting, or transforming the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge into a woman -- or even a Disney cartoon duck.

Costello set out in the mid-1990s to adapt the story for the stage in a way that held true to the original story and its language.

"What I did -- and this is the third time we've done this particular script -- about 15 years ago is I sat down and took the book and I basically adapted it for the stage," Costello said. "I tried to keep to the original story.

"At that time, I put it in the frame of some Christmas carolers who, instead of singing Christmas carols, were going to do a different type of carol -- they were going to perform this 'Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens. That's how we did it in '95 and 2000."

When it was decided that the play would be included in this year's performance lineup, Costello looked for a way to freshen it up a bit.

"Steve Felmet, my designer, and I, since we've done it that way twice, sort of rethought the piece in that (this time) it's actually a Victorian Christmas party, much like Fezziwig's party in the book," he said. "The set is basically maybe an open warehouse where people are gathering together for a Victorian Christmas party."

LANGUAGE THAT FLOWS

The dialogue, Costello said, is faithful to the words as written by Dickens.

"It's taken from the book," he said. "I may have had to tweak it here or there to make it fit on stage."

That's the way it should be as far as Costello's Scrooge, Lloyd Saxon, who played the role in both previous runs, is concerned.

"It's Dickens and I love it," the veteran of 41 Theatre Albany productions dating back to 1979 said. "I love Dickens. You know, this is probably the only show I've ever done where I can go back and remember a lot of the lines.

"Others I can't remember at all. It's just kind of poetic and they (the words) flow so well. I love the way they flow."

While the play isn't a musical, there will be some caroling at the beginning. As the party progresses, someone on stage comes up with an idea to tell a Christmas story.

"What happens is all the guests at the party take up parts in the show, then they present the show," Costello said. "They're guests at a Victorian party, and they're going to take up and relate the story. It's sort of a play within a play."

Saxon of Albany will reprise his role as Scrooge. William Davis, a newcomer to Theatre Albany, will portray his downtrodden clerk, Bob Cratchit, whose wife is portrayed by another newcomer, Sarah Morris. Alan Thornton will start the spectral succession as the ghost of Scrooge's dead business partner, Jacob Marley, followed by the ghosts of Christmas past (Demi Davis), present (Chet Dreschel) and yet to come (Doug Porter). Tiny Tim will be played by 5-year-old Benjamin Knight.

In all, 22 actors will tackle 44 roles in the production.

"Some people will play more than one role because of this structure, except for Scrooge. He'll be the same all the way through," Costello said. "We have one gentleman (Porter) who's playing one of the gentlemen who comes to see Scrooge, and later on he picks up the role of Christmas Yet To Come. One guy plays old Joe (Tom Knighton), and he plays Fezziwig earlier. We'll just do one little change of costume, and through their characterization they'll show they're a different character."

AN ORGANIC THING

With the stage setting a Victorian party, so many of the scenes will be in the audience members' minds, guided by narration by various cast members. For example, when Saxon (as Scrooge) is walking up to his door where he'll see Marley's face in the door knocker, a member of the cast will describe for the audience what is happening.

"It's an organic thing that flows," Costello said. "We make no pretense that it's anything but a stage, so we don't try to take you out of the fact that it's a theater, but we do relate the story. ... Everybody is a narrator at some point of the show."

Some of the cast will be off to the side, out of the lights, for parts of the play. There, they'll provide voices and sound effects to help move the story along. An actor might need a hat for a scene, and another actor will hand it to him. In Scrooge's opening scene in his office, he places his money box into a "safe" that is an open crate from the party. When Scrooge picks up his ledger, it'll be handed to him by an actor, but Saxon will act as if he picked it up from an invisible accounting desk.

"We may have a piece of scenery or a piece of furniture that is part of the party become part of the story of 'A Christmas Carol' and Scrooge," Costello said. "It's very much what I call a story-theater type thing. The sets aren't necessarily realistic in that this is not a street scene, but it'll be invoked by the way we do it, using chairs here, maybe a fireplace there, maybe pantomiming other things. Basically, it's a group of people telling the story to our audience and, of course, they'll be in our traditional costumes that we've had the last two times.

"We're limited in some things we can't do, but it's fun in other ways."

The two-week run opens Thursday. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sunday. Performances are at 8 p.m. Dec. 16-18 and at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 19. Ticket prices are $20, adults; $15, seniors 62 years and older; $10, children. For ticket information, call (229) 439-7141.