Monday, Dec. 6, 2010

Marley Is Present--A New Christmas Past--Old Familiar Faces At The Pabst

The Milwaukee Reps A CHRISTMAS CAROL rolls into its 35th Year

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Milwaukee Rep’s 35th annual production of A Christmas Carol is a bit bittersweet. With things being taken in a new direction with the Rep, the Resident Acting company that populates the production has fallen from prominence. Shows Like Liberace!  Bombshells, Cabaret and My Name Is Asher Lev are all reasonably enjoyable in their own right, but theatre comes from a sense of community and those shows that draw almost exclusively on talent only in town for the show feel a bit like touring shows. Written by Joseph Hanreddy and Ed Morgan, The Milwaukee Rep’s A Christmas Carol continues to draw a great deal of appeal from three and a half decades of tradition and the kind of community that supports it. 

 

When I first covered the show, I saw it alone. Eight years later, I’m attending the show with m wife—due to give birth to our first and only daughter next May. Judging from conversations of others on the way to our seats, my wife and I are not alone. The audience of a Milwaukee Rep production of A Christmas Carol is populated by audience members who have been going to the show for years. Many in the cast have been involved for the better part of a decade as well.

For the 24th time, James Pickering appears in the show—his thirteenth as Scrooge. Going through the spectral journey a number of times on 13 different incarnations of the show doesn’t appear to have worn Pickering at all. Pickering’s transformation from old miser at the beginning of the play and giddy, child-like humanitarian at the end felt as dynamic as ever opening weekend. As usual, the central cast moved around a bit this year. Deborah Staples breathes refreshing life into the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past. She gives the impression of a spirit who is perpetually living the past through new eyes—there’s a depth there I don’t recall seeing in previous years.

Jonathan Smoots is particularly interesting as Marley and Marley’s ghost. The role which had been brought so well to the stage in previous years by Mark Corkins comes a cross with considerably new life in Smoots’ hands. As the ghost of Marley, Smoots looks nearly paralyzed by the weight of his guilt. He’s stiff and tortured—it’s like he’s going through an eternally excruciating spectral rigor mortis in the after life. The portrayal of the ghost contrasts sharply with Smoots’ portrayal of a young Marley approaching Scrooge with a business proposition. Smoots doesn’t play-up the sinister villainy of a young Jacob Marley—instead we get a man treading the stage with a restlessly precise vitality. This is not villainy, but the look of the modern age—so interested in progress that it doesn’t seem aware of its effect. (The current financial crisis is reflected in the production at interesting angles as well—at the beginning of the play, Scrooge asks Cratchit to write-up paperwork on a foreclosure scheduled to happen on December 25th.) Smoots’ contrasting performances as Marley and Marley’s ghost also contrast with his much more traditional role as Christmas Present, which comes across as smiling and jovial as ever. The current script doesn’t allow him much time to render the character in much detail, but there are some priceless moments between Scrooge and Christmas Present this year.  

Of course, in an ensemble piece as big as this, there are bound to be really talented actors who end up being under-used. Lee Ernst is very non-descript as Bob Cratchit. It’s a pleasure to see Laura Gordon return to the role of Mrs. Dilber, but the role has been cut down considerably since she last played it—or perhaps it only seems that way fro some reason.  

Milwaukee Rep’s production of A Christmas Carol runs through December 26th at the Pabst Theatre. Call 414-224-9490 for tickets. 

 

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