A Christmas Carol (Review)

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Imagine.  

This one word is a direct order from the cast of this new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale A Christmas Carol from author Jack Cantey.  The seven-member cast, who begin by introducing themselves with their real name and their various parts (I’ll get to that), request that the audience imagine the scenery, the setting, and the situation.  

Of course, it is highly likely that anyone reading this is also familiar with the Dickens story that tackles greed and benevolence as the life of Ebenezer Scrooge is examined through the past, present, and future. Thus, it becomes a challenge for any adaptation to stand out unless it has with it some clever artistic liberties.

It was Dickens’ language that thrilled Cantey as he prepared this script, although he notes that the actors were without an “established, unchanging text” prior to this premiere run.  The inventiveness of this new adaptation calls for less attention to elaborate stage design and costume changes and much more focus toward pinpointing the essence and key phrasings from Dickens’ original tale.  It should be noted that Sophia Young’s set is exquisitely designed for Cantey’s vision. The stage suggests a frosty winterscape along with a projected yellow image at the top-center that will play its own small role throughout the performance.  

With a small cast of seven, some familiar characters from the original version and/or popular adaptations are dropped.  This stripped-down script still includes the chief characters (Scrooge, Fred, Tiny Tim, and the Ghosts just to name a few) in order to create the required dynamics of the heartwarming tale.  Through the use of scene-introducing voiceovers coupled with the occasional inclusion of a live narrator, Cantey’s adaptation contains a limited amount of lengthy monologues.  

The seven-member cast is chock full of locally grown talent.  Because various scenes from Scrooge’s life are presented, each of the four male members of the cast play a version of the infamous penny-pincher. Simultaneously, each of the three female cast members successfully complement these scenes through strong renditions of multiple significant characters.   

FPT veteran Scott McMeen, while playing the eldest Scrooge, captures the essence of the burdened man in the counting-house and convincingly exhibits the likeable man who redeems himself with his remaining family.  Rachel Dostal’s dynamic Ghost of Christmas Past and loveable Tiny Tim characters serve as the adhesive to this compacted adaptation.

Billy Hofman takes on a younger Scrooge, Old Joe, and Fezziwig, who again serves as crowd favorite. Kyle Nelson, who recently performed in An American Lynching: The Emmet Till Story in Indianapolis, excels as Bob Cratchit throughout the play, but his six other roles are not to be dismissed. Kendallville native Allison Brandgard serves as the Movement Director as well as six total characters–most notably as Belle and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  The overall choreography of this performance led by Ms. Brandgard is among its best features. Ashley Shewman shows off her advanced acting chops with performances as Fred Scrooge and Belle, but her strongest presence is as Mrs. Cratchit.  Lastly, Fort Wayne’s own Dalen West does an extraordinary job in his laundry list of roles, including a very humorous man-child who is summoned to purchase some poultry.  As The Reader throughout the play, West further provides textual notes that serve audience members young and old.  

Christina Connelly, the Assistant Director, also reads the voiceovers.  These short lines occur at the beginning of each scene and work quite well as a short preview to the forthcoming action.   Jeanette Walsh’s costumes are predominantly simplistic blacks and whites, which evoke a subtle nod to common oppositions found in all art: life vs. death and good vs. evil.  The technical director is Rae Surface, who has loved being involved with FPT during this, her first season.

Even though Cantey admits he was hesitant to write this adaptation along with FPT’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter because so many adaptations exist, he states in his program notes that both of them wanted to tell this holiday tale “in a fresh way.”

This fresh approach is immediately apparent as the entire cast hauntingly discusses a recent death during the opening scene.  Over the next ninety minutes, the audience is whisked away through the pages of the famous author while a visually aesthetic experience unfolds before them.  Through the use of creative staging, lighting, and puppetry, Cantey has created a stirring, modern take on the classic tale.

 

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Review of “Faith Healer” 

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This is my first published review.  It appeared in the October 11, 2017 issue of “Whatzup” in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  I want to thank my colleague Kevin Smith for recommending me and helping me have this opportunity!

For decades Hollywood movies and romance novels have leaned on consumers’ unwavering desire to be entertained without the nuisance of actually thinking. They apply formulaic plot lines and rarely add little more than a short-term distraction with no real substance. Conversely, live theater audiences flock to their seats because they expect to be entertained and to gain perspective. If you prefer the latter of these two groups, you will not be disappointed if you see Faith Healer, currently running in the lower-level theater of First Presbyterian Church.

At some point in life, many people may internally or externally debate whether or not faith ever really means anything or actually has any real impact. These and other questions of the soul and of our existence–and more directly how our faith in others affects each of us–are presented in this performance, which runs until October 21 in downtown Fort Wayne.  

In a drama that also deeply explores issues such as Truth and Shame, Thom Hofrichter’s 2017-2018 season directorial debut at the historic First Presbyterian Theater shifts internally and examines many of life’s toughest questions. Hofrichter chose this drama rather selfishly, he admits in his director’s notes, because he has been a long-time admirer of the language and themes of Irish playwright Brien Friel’s introspective, soul-examining play. Theatergoers are in for a monologue-driven wallop starring three seasoned First Prez veterans.

The three main characters each recall multiple events they experienced together while travelling through Wales, Scotland, and Ireland from the late 1950s to the late 1970s.  

FPT mainstay Austin Berger leads off this performance as Francis Hardy, a likeable but heavily flawed man who has spent his adult life examining his own existence and abilities through decades of performing a one-man travelling exhibition as a self-described “Faith Healer.” Because there is nary a scene where multiple characters interact, Francis (”Frank”) begins this tale by revealing what could very well be his truest self more to a non-existent listener than he apparently ever did to the two people who devoted their lives to him. It is only when the other two characters later present their stories that the audience begins to question if anything he’s said so far is true.  

Co-star Nancy Kartholl, whose FPT resume includes highly esteemed roles such as Vivian Bearing from WIT and Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello,  exquisitely performs the rather tainted and unrefined Grace Hardy. Going against the wishes of her father, she chose a life with Frank, who, when they met, seemed to be her life’s missing puzzle piece. Ironically, Grace, clearly jarred by the events recalled during her lengthy monologue, exhibits anything but what her name might indicate. Kartholl arrests the stage as she achingly dispels information that Frank had either conveniently omitted, forgotten, or perhaps did not actually occur whatsoever. Enter: the audience’s aforementioned role in deciphering the Truth.

The third member of this tragic-laden threesome is Teddy, Frank’s manager, played by a visibly (intentionally) shaken Daniel Bulau. Previous audiences of FPT might recall his stirring performance as the lovable Herman in On Golden Pond. In this role, Bulau’s Teddy, the lone American character of the trio, appears to offer an air of authority at first, but his natural ability as an entertainment manager to rake in naive customers through fast talk and quirky, sage witticisms becomes more and more obvious, forcing the audience to sort out which character has been the most truthful as they have now all recounted contradictory details of the same general memories.

In the final scene Berger as Frank returns as the final witness in this case where the audience is judge and jury. Though omitted here for obvious reasons, trust that some surprises and key insights are in store for the audience who should be thirsty by that point for a satisfying explanation.  

By the way, a subtitle I considered for this review was “In Vino Veritas” because the use of- and memories shared about alcohol adds an arguably unsavory but tremendous function in the audience’s goal in filtering out the truth from each character’s recollections.  

As for the additional production team, it is of note that Jeanette Walsh’s costume designs subtly and cleverly depict what each character has come to be at given points in time. Coupled with the these costume choices, the simple set functions quite nicely for such a series of four dense soliloquies. According to the production notes, Rae Surface (technical director) is no stranger to Fort Wayne theater but is fairly new to First Prez, and the light and sound operator-slash-stage manager is Associate Pastor for Children Bill Lane.  

This play demands your attention and patience. Audiences are bound to have varying opinions of what really happened among these three characters, but that’s among the powerful effects of live theater. In two two-scene acts, this performance lasts a little more than two hours, including one ten-minute intermission.