Shadow play 

MAT’s Carol revels in crooked darkness

A Christmas Carol begs for the presence of shadows. In one scene, the Ghost of Christmas Present warns, “If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the child will die.” And later, after seeing the dire results of his future, the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, cries, “Are these the shadows of things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”

Redemption stories work like this: You have to have cruelty and ignorance before kindness and understanding occur. Utter darkness, then light. But still, so many versions of A Christmas Carol never fully delve into the bleakness of mid-19th century London—its poverty and pollution, the industrial corruption. They show it, but they don’t exactly mire in it. Well, if you add German Expressionism to the story, then you’ve got some wicked darkness. Early German Expressionist films—Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—embraced the imagery of crooked staircases and pointy shadows. More recently, film director Tim Burton plays with the same expressionist style in the horror make-up of Edward Scissorhands and the impossibly contorted high rises of Gotham City in Batman Returns.

The Montana Actors’ Theatre (MAT) has plugged into that very German Expressionist realm for their version of A Christmas Carol. Director Grant Olson’s adaptation feels like a silent film, filled with exaggerated facial expressions and elegant gestures—but with sound, of course. Every character, ghost or not, wears a powdered face, eyes rimmed in red and black. It’s horrifying, like their bottom lids have suffered great abuses—sleepless nights or nightmares, maybe insanity.

This was the same idea with German Expressionism: the dark mood and reality of the age literally expresses itself in the faces and furniture of the performance. Ever flipped through an Edward Gorey book like The Fatal Lozenge or The Beastly Baby? Olson’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol holds the same kind of gothic mystery—even the sympathetic characters appear on the verge of decay.

In MAT’s production, seven cast members play all 33 roles, sometimes changing a hat to indicate a new character. Don Fuhrmann, who solely plays Scrooge, holds up the lead fantastically, fitting right into the ranks with the grumpiness of George C. Scott’s version in the 1984 movie. Fuhrmann’s not quite the bear that Scott is—instead, he plays Scrooge with sourness and expressions that shift seamlessly from irritation to surprise to fear and, later, to joy.

Reid Reimers plays the Ghost of Christmas Present with bravado, one foot always lifted on his toe to exaggerate his already immense height. Later he plays a gentleman seeking donations along with Michelle Edwards, and both play the expressionist style fabulously. In moments of fear, they lean back in an unnatural way with their eyes popped open and lips in tight “O” shapes. In moments of disbelief—when Scrooge, for instance, says to let the poor die to “decrease the surplus population”—they look horrified as people might mock looking horrified. It’s like watching a dance performance—you can admire the acting but also the actors’ physical grace.

Tashia Gates, in particular, emphasizes the expressionistic form when she plays Scrooge’s once-beloved Belle. Her mannerisms and gestures are like isolated poses. One moment she deliberately clasps her hands to one side of her and in the next sentence she leans forward into almost a curtsey and then next a graceful leg lunge.

Sounds play an important role in this adaptation as well. An almost constant ticking of the clock provides an ever-present sense of time running by. The rhythmic “ping” of coins punctuates the silence as Scrooge counts his money. Bob Cratchit, played by the lanky and emotionally versatile Nathan McTague, sits at his desk, scratching his nails on wood to emulate a fountain pen.

And furniture is vital. One freestanding, moveable door acts as the only entry and exit. The chairs and table are built to slant wildly, providing a topsy-turvy effect. At times it’s even a bit disconcerting to watch the actors balance, lopsided.

Stark colors—mostly black, white and red—simulate an otherworldly essence. The character’s gestures measure equal parts graceful and sinister. The story is one we’ve heard many times, but drenching it in shadowy imagery and unnatural gestures gives it a refreshing frame. In this version, you can still appreciate Scrooge’s journey into the light of Christmas spirit, even if the dark visions and ghostly faces linger to the very end.

A Christmas Carol continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Dec. 18, through Saturday, Dec. 20, at 7:30 PM, with shows on Sunday, Dec. 21, at 2 and 6 PM. $10–15.
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