A Christmas Carol

Local Arts Reviews

A Christmas Carol: Tale of a Highly Human Being

Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's School, through Dec. 22

Running Time: 1 hr, 10 min

I have difficulty imagining that anyone reading this isn't familiar with this most classic of all Christmas stories because, after all, the name Scrooge has become synonymous with avarice and greed. To a certain extent that is a shame because Scrooge, as presented by Christopher Schario in this adaptation of the Charles Dickens tale, after being taken on a journey through his life by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, changes significantly. He becomes, in fact, the opposite of what the name Scrooge has come to imply: a loving, caring, giving, highly human being.

In this production presented by Second Youth Family Theatre, one of at least three Carols playing in Austin this holiday season, Chronicle Arts editor Robert Faires serves as director. Faires is fortunate in having Douglas Taylor portray his Scrooge because, while Taylor is not the aging, graying man typically found playing the role, he manages to project both youth and age at appropriate moments and brings to the role an intimate knowledge of death (Taylor recently survived a heart attack) that informs his presentation.

Faires is fortunate in other ways as well. Schario's adaptation centers around a child reading Dickens' story on Christmas Eve, and Faires dedicates the production to this idea. J. Richard Smith's set consists of little more than draped green fabric, a stationary double bed, a couple of podiums, and a few chairs; costume designer Sukriye Yuksel uses pieces of period costumes rather than complete ones; and Faires' actors use these pieces of set and costumes to conjure a tremendous number of characters and places to great effect, most particularly during a party at which they evoke dozens of guests (only nine performers appear in the production). Faires' actors move through the text with intense focus, and while some bring more to the table than others, some seemed to be suffering from opening-night jitters, more than a few attempted British dialects that were, in the end, almost totally unnecessary, and all knew exactly what story they needed to tell and told it well, particularly Tamara Beland and Joeleen L. Ornt, both in multiple roles. Most impressive of all were the puppets designed and executed by Brian Gaston and Patrick Johnson that were used to portray the ghosts, two in particular. After Marley's ghost, with its disembodied head and writhing, stringy, gray body, exited, my 12-year-old son leaned over to me and whispered, "That was cool!" And when the Ghost of Christmas Present entered, a living giant walked among us, and I stared at the stage, jaw agape.

It was, in fact, the Ghost of Christmas Present that made the greatest impression on me, and not only by its presence. During one scene, the ghost told Scrooge that just because he was rich didn't mean he had power over life and death, and I couldn't help but think of the present administration and the possibility of visiting the violence we Americans seem to hold in such esteem on those who have much less than we do. This was, I believe, exactly Dickens' intent in writing his story well more than 150 years ago: We should embrace everyone, not for what they have, but simply for what they hold in common with us -- our humanity -- now and every day of the year.

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A Christmas Carol, Christopher Schario, Charles Dickens, Second Youth Family Theatre, Robert Faires, Douglas Taylor, J. Richard Smith, Sukriye Yuksel, Tamara Beland, Joeleen L. Ornt, Brian Gaston, Patrick Johnson

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