The transformation of Scrooge

Vermont Theatre Company presents its annual production of 'The Christmas Carol'

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BRATTLEBORO — Back by popular demand for a fourth year, Vermont Theatre Company will present a new musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," opening Friday, Dec. 8 in a first-time-ever theatrical production at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

Produced by Robert Kramsky, it is written and directed by Jessica Gelter who has taken this year's Carol in another direction yet again. Gelter and husband Jay Gelter kicked off the tradition of presenting "A Christmas Carol" each holiday season four years ago while staying true to their mantra of presenting scripts close to the original writing. Jessica said the beauty of Dickens' novella is that it has tons of dialogue that translate well to the stage. She can dig out what she needs to tell the story each time with a different approach.

Last year's Carol was inhabited by a traditional Scrooge, whereas this year the presentation is more about his relationships as he is transported through Christmases past, present and future. The spirits are hard on him, and he will see how his haunted life has not done him any good. His transformation comes little by little, not all at once, while remaining self-centered until the very end.

"Dickens' writing is full of sass," said Jessica. That lends well also to seeing parallels with current events.

Also different is the format. When the theater company put out the call (email actually) that they were seeking a venue for this year's production, Danny Lichtenfeld, director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center responded. Always interested in new ways to keep the museum vibrant and bustling, Lichtenfeld said he would be interested in hosting the production because, "It doesn't do the museum any good when the museum's doors are closed and the lights are off."

The trick, however, was the logistics of putting on a play at night in the Main Gallery of a museum that is open during the day. The stage would need to be dismantled after each performance and reconstructed the following evening for each of the six productions. Stage manager Eli Coughlin-Gilbraith and the Gelters came up with a creative solution: Present the Carol like a Victorian traveling play with minimal props and a small cast. Jessica described the resulting set as "shabby and chic," perfectly suited for an old train station such as the museum.

There are only nine cast members, each playing upwards of six roles with the exception of Bruce Holloway, who only plays Ebenezer Scrooge. Also in the cast are James (Jay) Gelter as the narrator, Jon Mack, Jonathan Reid, Sophie Bady-Kaye, Shannon Ward, Meredith Lewis, Gavin Holloway, and Zoe Peterson (as Tiny Tim).

Because they needed actors that could be versatile, the Gelters held auditions for the first time. This cast is a tight group that can handle different ensembles, Jessica said, "The cast is amazing, they sing, they dance, they are funny, they are dramatic."

"There is a theatrical magic seeing the same actors playing different roles," Jay Gelter said.

The musical ensemble under the direction of Katy Peterson includes a six-member chorus Nell Curley, Krista Coughlin-Galbraith, Marit Bjerkdal, Jonathan Kinnersley, Tony Grobe, and Ryan Buck singing 22 musical numbers. Beautiful pieces that range from traditional British folk songs to haunting renaissance pieces, to barroom music. In an artistic approach, the costumed chorus mills about the stage, interrupting with their songs, often loudly and intensely, heightening emotions and aiding the audience in keeping apprised of what is happening.

Jay, who has been creating sets "forever" created this set and works the puppets of the ghosts of Christmas. Yup. Puppets. He worked with Sandglass Theater last year helping to develop its dramatic theatrical production, "Babylon." When brainstorming ways to downsize the cast while meeting the needs of Carol it dawned on him that puppets would be the perfect solution. He said the best part is that the puppets he made can do things that actors can't. The Ghost of Christmas Past is 1-foot tall, while the Ghost of Christmas Future is very tall — and they float — adding an "other" worldliness to them. As the narrator, Jay plays broadly to the audience, encouraging interaction with boos and cheers, and does a bit of standup to get the audience more engaged.

Holloway, who is a veteran of VTC productions is playing Scrooge for the first time. He said, "It is an actor's dream role. "The challenge is everyone knows Scrooge. I have to make it my own, not what I have seen other actors do, but my own."

He read Dickens' book to understand the original character and to connect with Scrooge's idea that everyone is where they are in life by virtue of how hard they work. Scrooge felt he got where he was by hard work, he felt that was reasonable, rational, and other people were ridiculous. Halloway takes Scrooge from rationalizing about how he has behaved to realizing what he has been missing out on. Holloway said this year's version of Scrooge is very true to the book, and it is exciting.

"It feels good at the end of the play as he (Scrooge) is able to give. Even as the actor I get goosebumps," he said,

Jon Mack plays Fezzywig and Old Joe, and is having fun playing several women's roles too. Fezzywig who represents all the joy of Christmas and is extremely good to people is Scrooge's former boss and a sharp contrast to Old Joe who is the worst of what Scrooge has become — cruel and nasty — but ultimately showing Scrooge that he needs to change.

The question remains, "How do you change?" Mack asked. "Having played Scrooge in the Jessica and Jay's first VTC productions of 'A Christmas Carol,' it's terrific to see the role so marvelously incarnated this year by Bruce Holloway. Bruce delightfully captures the wrenching transformation Scrooge must undergo to change from a mean-spirited miser to a compassionate human being.

"With each of us playing multiple parts as members of a Victorian troupe, getting to portray characters like the exuberant Fezziwig, nasty Old Joe, as well as a couple female roles, is a total treat," continued Mack. "Music, from the bright and cheery to the dark and serious, abounds. Most importantly, the performance respects Charles Dickens' message that compassion and empathy are values that must always transcend greed and mean-spiritedness — a message as badly needed today as ever before. As someone who has played Scrooge, I get a kick out of being the confronted instead of being the confronter."

Shannon Ward plays Mrs. Cratchit plus five other characters. "I'm enjoying my range of characters this year, from beggar to teenage friend."

Ward also made the costumes for the set, saying there had to be a lot of planning in them, costumes that are reversible and versatile so they can be used in multiple ways just as traveling Victorian actors would have done. Ward, who has played Mrs. Cratchit before, said this year her portrayal of Mrs. Cratchit is a more playful character, having fun with the family.

Bady-Kaye, who plays Scrooge's jovial nephew, Fred, Scrooge's young fiance, Belle, and Joshua, a male debtor, has two unique roles of characters who loved Scrooge. "All of my characters have distinct relationships with Scrooge. Two characters knew and loved him in the past, they still love him as he once was. Fred wants to salvage their relationship while Belle realizes he will never give her what she needs. Belle has moved on and it sort of serves as a lesson to Scrooge, to change, to make himself better even though some things are not salvageable but it is not too late for Fred," Bady-Kaye said. "I've done Shakespeare in the Park with VTC before but this is the first time in 'A Christmas Carol.' I love this tight group, we play off of each other."

Gavin Holloway plays Peter, brother of Tiny Tim, boy Scrooge, and a beggar. This is his third year with the Carol. He reflected, "I like that you get to be somebody else in a play — characters not like you. It's fun to be in a different world. Boy Scrooge is my favorite role. He is not like me, his life is different. He has siblings, parents who are strict, not happy. It makes me happy and appreciative of what I have."

Last year VTC asked that on two days of the show theater-goers bring non-perishable food in support of Groundworks Drop-In Center to get $1 off of the ticket price. It was so successful they are doing it again this year but for all six days of the show. There will also be an opportunity to sign up to work with others to cook a meal for the drop in center sometime over the winter months. Groundworks Food Shelf serves upwards of 1,000 individuals each month, making it the most heavily utilized food pantry in the region.

Libby Bennett, development director at Groundworks said, "We are so appreciative of all of the community's efforts to support our neighbors in need at this time of year and year-round; and we're so appreciative that the Vermont Theatre Company continues to think of us as they celebrate the spirit of giving with this annual production."

Performances take place this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and again on Dec. 14, 15 and 16, at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, 10 Vernon St. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission and $13 for students and seniors, and $5 for children under 10 years old. Tickets may be reserved by calling 802-258-1344 or by emailing vtcreservations@gmail.com. For more information, visit Vermont Theatre Company on Facebook, Twitter, or at vermonttheatrecompany.org.

Cicely M. Eastman may be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 261




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