The Artists’ Exchange’s Christmas Carol Brings Tidings of Joy

iconsquare2013MarleyPromoIf Harold had his way, the world would exist solely at the tip of his purple crayon and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. What a child transfers from hand to paper is a direct manifestation of how they see the world, or at least as they would like it be. This notion is the central conceit for Artists’ Exchange 10th Anniversary production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Director Clara Weishahn has crafted a simple, but effective framework for a retelling of the Christmas classic along mostly traditional lines, but with a sentimentally contemporary flavor. A festive family gathering starts with a traditional recitation of the story, with family members jockeying for parts, and a simple child’s drawing becomes the medium through which we are thrust into Victorian England and the world of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Weishahn, working with the Gateways for Change program affiliated with Artists’ Exchange, has assembled a lively and large cast all with varying degrees of ability, but no shortage of enthusiasm and infectious joy. A bare stage is quickly transformed through the use of backdrops that mirror the drawings of a small child (a heartwrenchingly adorable Simone Pellegrino) who is our medium into the world of Scrooge. Fittingly, Pellegrino is Tiny Tim in her mind’s eye and her ebullient family fills in the rest of the tale as her drawings continue to set the scene. The scenery is often sparse, but well-crafted, and we often wonder where some of the set pieces have gone to, they were so captivating (a cleverly designed four-poster bed, for instance, makes an early appearance in Scrooge’s bedroom and is never seen again). However, with the show set to take up residence at The Park Theater this weekend, more stage space and scenic options are available to Weishahn, and Amanda Hall’s paintings will have a more profound effect. Dan Fisher’s lighting won’t be in use at The Park, but it’s great to see someone finally able to light the Theatre 82 space to full advantage.

With a steely Tom Chace handling Scrooge duty, the story unfolds at a rapid-fire pace, assuming (correctly) that we’re all familiar enough with the plot and the language to concentrate on how it unfolds. Marley and the Ghosts are all done simply, but with enough style to invoke the otherworldliness of it all without trying too hard to resort to technical wizardry. Each specter tends to have a beautiful entourage in tow, which works to best effect with Christmas Present (a captivating Beth Alianiello), but we first see them with Jacob Marley, bestrewn with the expected chains and dourly pounding home the metaphor for the gobsmacked Ebenezer (Harold Ashton is replaced by AE mainstay Mark Carter for the Park run). The ghost ensemble is a nicely crafted device to allow all manner of scene changes, but also allows Weishahn to frame four very different and varying performances with a stylistic unity that makes them stand out more fully.

Other moments in this Christmas Carol that warm the heart and convey Dickens’ message with acuity are a touching and nicely acted moment between young Scrooge (David Kane) and the lost object of his affection, Belle. Mia Ray and Kane have a touching chemistry in a scene that sets the stage for a tearjerker of a closing moment at the height of Scrooge’s epiphany. The party scene during Christmas past is also a delight, replete with lusty cheer and an infectious sense of jubilance that seems to fairly burst from Roger Lemelin as the ever-elated Fezziwig. The scene is one of the best uses of the entire ensemble and, once again, the infectiousness of youth is ever-present. Even the tasteful and well-placed underscoring is performed live by a young musical duo, Misha Dubuc and Sierra Lavoie, directed by Chace.

This Carol is not the high-end extravaganza offered by Trinity Rep or the ambitious left-field version running at Courthouse, but Artists’ Exchange production is true to the spirit of Dickens and, at least in the intimate studio space of Theatre 82, manages to evoke sentimentality without becoming saccharine. The key takeaways in this outing are redemption, joy and simplicity. Scrooge’s money may make everyone else happy in the end, but a simple gesture and the ringing of a bell open his heart forever. Hopefully the large scale of The Park can maintain that intimacy, but it still won’t be large enough to contain the joy.

The Artists’ Exchange presents A Christmas Carol at the Park Theater in Cranston December 19th, 20th, 21st, with 2 showings on the final day (the 8pm show is a Holiday Gala at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet). For more details and tickets go to www.artists-exchange.org

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