A Christmas Carol,A Ghost Story of Christmas
Charleston Stage Company
Running through Dec. 18
Dock Street Theatre
135 Queen St.
577-7183 or www.charlestonstage.com

A Dickens Christmas Carol
Village Repertory Company
Running through Dec. 17
The Village Playhouse
730 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
856-1579 or www.villageplayhouse.com

Last weekend saw the opening of two very different stage productions of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic A Christmas Carol. To some extent, which one is best suited for you depends on what you’re looking for — the biggest bang for your buck (one version includes flying ghosts and a fireworks display) or Dickens’ tale served up with a dollop of slapstick and wit.

How much enjoyment you and your family get out of Charleston Stage Company’s high-tech production at the Dock Street Theatre, titled A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas, is likely to depend on where you sit. If a theatre company is going to pour huge amounts of time and money into a production, they’d be wise to make certain it looks great from every seat in the house. And if you as a theatre-goer are going to pour your money into one of those seats ($35 in this case), you deserve to see a great show. What you don’t deserve are backstage views of the “special effects.” Audiences don’t pay to see actors hanging out in the wings, waiting for their entrances. They shouldn’t see the “ghosts” who are about to be flown onstage hanging like dead bodies above the stage and off to the side. They shouldn’t see a light that’s used for effect in a fireplace, staring out at them. Perhaps Charleston Stage is attempting to treat its patrons in the side seats to a Brechtian-style bit of theatre. In any event, they have destroyed the theatrical illusion for many and cheated them out of having the same experience patrons in the center rows have.

Unfortunately, it’s not just those audience members on the sides. Everyone close to the stage can see the shoddy job done with the makeup and costume for Scrooge’s first ghostly visitor, Jacob Marley (played by Shawn Sturdevant, a giant of a man who struggles with three small chains that are supposed to be pulling him backwards, yet oddly enough sag the entire time he’s fighting them). Those people in the front rows at one point seemed to suffer (as evidenced by a wave of coughs) from the overspill of fog from the stage.

Michael Christensen makes some odd prop choices — characters celebrate, for example, either with empty mugs or ones brimming with fiber-fill (one audience member joked, “That can’t be healthy to drink”). The set design (by Stephanie Christensen) is disjointed; with the flotsam and jetsam of past productions mingling with new set elements, there’s no cohesive theme. Each set individually looks great, but put them all together and you have a weird mélange of backdrops resembling Victorian illustrations; surreal, twisted interior settings; and traditional gingerbread style exterior houses. It looks like a mess.

Likewise for the acting styles, which Wiles doesn’t seem to have blended together very well. Ross Magoulas as Ebenezer Scrooge performs well, but he has none of the character’s intimidating presence. Magoulas’ Scrooge is almost likeable even when he’s being hateful. Others are clearly working too hard at “acting.” Pulling double duty as Caroline and Belle, Jenny Ploughman unfortunately displays a hollow phoniness that permeates both roles identically. Conversely, Zack Knudsen (as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred) gives a convincing, relaxed performance, not trapped in the production as some of the other actors appear. The same can be said for David Ardrey (returning as Bob Cratchit), whose naturalistic worn-down-but-still-spirited manner imbues his every move onstage.

Miles Boinest and Tarver Paradise (Peter Cratchit and Tiny Tim, respectively) are impressive, if a bit overblown and unreigned, respectively. With a little more work it looks as if they may become fine actors.

The staging is often awkward. There are repeated instances of a character walking downstage and addressing the characters he just left behind him, shouting back at the person over his shoulder.

Yet Charleston Stage’s production does include some impressive effects, which obviously had thought and work put into them. Scrooge’s bedroom quietly and quickly slides away as if getting sucked into a vortex as visions of his past appear in its place. There’s also a cute scene when the Ghost of Christmas Present (the well-cast David Hallatt, resembling a Victorian-era St. Nick) magically “decks the halls” of Scrooge’s bedroom and decorations appear.

Barbara Young’s costumes are mostly lovely, especially the Ghost of Christmas Present’s luxurious ensemble and Scrooge’s robe and cap. Her attention to detail is evident in most of the costumes.

Multi-talented Knudsen also provides effective sound design, with frightening organ-crunching effects and howling wind. He also serves as one of the onstage musicians, playing guitar in musical supervisor Wendell Smith’s arrangements.

The good here, regrettably, does not outweigh the bad, and in the end one is left feeling cheated by a sloppy mish-mash of a production. On top of that, it’s one whose creators don’t appear to have cared enough to make sure that either every seat in the house was a great one, or that the sale of ‘bad’ seats was barred or discounted.

The Village Playhouse’s A Dickens Christmas Carol also opened last weekend, playing across the Cooper River in the company’s cabaret-style space in Brookgreen Town Center. The premise is as follows: it’s the British touring troupe Styckes-Upon-Thump Repertory Company’s “15th Annual Farewell Tour” of A Christmas Carol. Mrs. Bettina Salisbury, the leading lady, has fallen ill and the show is, in the grandest of theatrical traditions, going on. Sir Selsdon Piddock assumes his role’s Ebenezer Scrooge with the persona of a ’50s TV dad, looking to the audience for approval and applause. Understudy Cynthia Imbry is brought in, and the poor thing has to refer to barely-hidden cheat sheets for her lines. It’s all a ruse of the devils at the Village Playhouse, who, in keeping with their penchant for campy send-ups, here present a silly look at the well-trod tale.

While being either a child or slightly intoxicated may help one more fully enjoy this production, that’s not an insult to the company. Rather it’s an insult to those of us theatre-going adults who can’t leave our dramaturgical quibbling or self-conscious snobbery at the door. Because you really need to be able to let loose to get involved in A Dickens Christmas Carol and not think of it as flat-out ridiculous. Yes, it is ridiculous — but that’s the point. If you can’t find joy in ridiculousness, then do not go to this production. Stay at home and stuff your nose into a dusty edition of Dickens’ book.

Angela Blanchard stars as the trembling understudy Cynthia, Gene Glave stars as Cordelia Fortescue Woods (in the roles of the Ghost of Christmas Past and Emily Cratchit, among others), Terry Davey portrays Selsdon Piddock, and Dave Reinwald plays Elyot Crummels (who performs at least four major roles, including Bob Cratchit and Marley). Janice Horst plays the unstoppable Bettina Salisbury, who refuses to have her thunder stolen. Adam Kassim plays Teddy Shub (the tallest Tiny Tim ever), and Paulette Todd portrays Dame Rowena Middleton-Lewis (in the roles of Peter and the Ghost of Christmas Future). They are all incredibly relaxed without being lazy. Director (and set designer) Keely Enright handles the multitude of short scenes almost seamlessly and brings out the fearlessness and chemistry of the performers well. She uses the small amount of performance space given to good effect.

Even though VP’s A Dickens Christmas Carol is the stuff of dinner theatre, it’s also the stuff that mocks dinner theatres. It’s full of cheap jokes, dumb costumes, and hideous wigs — and it’s all calculated.

The production is far from perfect. Things happen that don’t make any sense. It helps to know the story, because a lot of it gets lost in the loud shuffle of slapstick. The play gets a little too caught up in itself, and even though it’s only an hour long, it still runs out of steam by the end. Yet seeing Charleston Stage’s version may actually help one appreciate the kind of inane humor in VP’s production a little more. Because what’s absent in Charleston Stage’s production is exactly what the production should be about: heart. VP approaches the classic with humor, good-naturedness, and a genuine appreciation of the thing Charleston Stage seems to have forgotten in its current production: their audience in its entirety.

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