A Christmas Carol in the dark

3 Stars

 Theatre in the Dark Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)
Theatre in the Dark Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)

Theatre in the Dark celebrates the end of 2020 with their spin on Charles Dickens’ beloved classic tale of self-reflection and repentance.

My first impulse is to suggest that this year more than others in recent memory is a perfect time to reflect on the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. But  I realize that human suffering and greed are continually with us to a greater or lesser degree and  that the Christmas spirit as defined by Dickens is our meager attempt once a year to rise above petty self-interests and consider the greater good. “God bless us, every one.”

“A Christmas Carol” is a fictional expose on the Victorian life and times of  Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, a character whose very name has become synonymous with miserliness, as in “That guy is a real Scrooge.”

In the story, this tightwad scrimps on coal in the winter months, begrudges his only clerk a day off to celebrate the Christmas holiday with the family and, in response to a solicitation of aid to the poor asks, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

When pointed out that many would rather die than go there, Scrooge suggests that “If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

His comment exemplifies a degree of callousness and disregard for the welfare of others for no reason other than to hoard his wealth which we learn brings him no personal pleasure.

As the story begins, Scrooge is visited by the specter of Jacob Marley, his deceased business partner. Marley warns of the torments he has endured in the afterlife as a result of his own greed and indifference. He suggests Scrooge may escape the same fate if he undergoes visitations with three additional apparitions – the ghosts of Christmas present, past and future.

Through a nightmarish one-night odyssey, Scrooge sees his negative effect on others, his disregard of positive role models and a lonely end and lamentable legacy if he does not change.

Dickens’ story continues to work as a modern day parable, revealing the darker nature that lurks within us all.

Scrooge’s journey of self-discovery demonstrates that we can each contribute by paying a little more attention to our place within our community and our part in society.

Observing the loving interactions of the Cratchit family and the kind words of nephew Fred, we realize that it is not just about money. We can be greedy with our emotions and personal interactions as well.

Dickens and the cast of Theater in the Dark also pull at our heart strings through the now iconic character of Tiny Tim who, in contrast to Scrooge, has come to exemplify innocent good cheer in the face of adversity and demonstrates that love does not require monetary wealth but can be given freely in abundance.

This iteration of “A Christmas Carol” is offered as an Internet version of a radio drama designed to be enjoyed in a now, largely bygone, aural tradition. Delivered via zoom it requires only a good set of speakers or a headset. The experience is very much like sitting around your living room reading aloud with friends.

There were no real standout performances though Corey Bradberry as Scrooge did a credible job weaving a thread of continuity throughout the production. The rest of the cast was more than adequate but really broke no new ground nor did they really rise to the level of any of the well-known movie versions or other well regarded stage adaptations.

Still, I do not fault Theatre in the Dark for taking a stab at this. After all, live theater is about having your crack at stepping into the skin of various characters and seeing what it’s like to be them.

This is an ensemble production with each of the actors Sarah Althen, Kathleen Puls, Mack Gordon, and Corey Bradberry playing several roles. The story was adapted and directed by Mack Gordon, featuring original music by Jake Sorgen with sound design by Gordon.

The danger of doing a classic is akin to being a cover band.  If you do not play exactly like the original you will be criticized for not being an exact replica. The other option is to be completely original so it is clear you are doing something fresh.

In this case, think Bill Murray’s version or the Mr. Magoo cartoon version, that has become a classic in its own right.

Unfortunately this company really did neither so the question becomes why choose this version over a number of other options? The main reason is the audio aspect.

If you or your kids have not experienced a radio drama you might find this a refreshing option. If the listener has no previous experience with the play they will be relieved of the burden of comparison.

Finally, Theater in the Dark offers a pay as you please option so it’s a great way to try something new while supporting smaller theater companies during the stay-at-home-period.

To be clear I did not dislike this performance but would put it into the realm of a very good reading as opposed to a thoughtfully well-crafted production. If you’re home with the kids, consider this as a way to develop listening skills sitting in the dark and enjoy some peaceful quiet time together.

Interestingly, the cast is simultaneously in Chicago, Philadelphia and Vancouver which expands the notion of live theater. The Internet performance is delivered via Zoom with the help of stage manager/sound engineer Cory Bradberry.

I listened via an iPad with amplified computer speakers connected via an analog cable which allowed me to easily adjust the volume in the room. There is no picture to be concerned with so screen sharing is basically a useless option. Also be forewarned that screen sharing via Zoom in most cases will not broadcast the audio so keep it as simple as possible by using a tablet or computer.

Theatre in the Dark is offering Live online performances of “A Christmas Carol” through December  24, 2020. Running time is about 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at www.theatreinthedark.com.  For info only (no ticketing), call (312) 285-0314.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Reno Lovison

 

‘A War of the Worlds’ reimagined for a new millennium

 

Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark War of the Worlds production.
Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark War of the Worlds production.

3 Stars

Is it an audiobook? Is it a podcast? Is it a radio show? Maybe yes but then again maybe no. Actually it is Theatre in the Dark’s virtual audio drama.  Perhaps it is partially inspired by Orson Welles’ memorable 1938 radio broadcast of “A War of the Worlds” based on H.G. Wells’ iconic novel about a Martian invasion of the Earth.

Congratulations to this innovative production company whose mission is to create theater performance based on sound and utilization of Internet technology to reach out and engage audiences during these trying times.

This updated 21st century version of “A War of the Worlds” adapted by director Corey Bradberry and Mack Gordon, is set primarily in and around the Chicago area. (Ironically Bradberry and Gordon met at an improv class at Second City which is now up for sale).

The original book was centered in London at the end of the 19th century. Then, the 1938 Mercury Theatre on the Air production was based in mid-twentieth century New Jersey. So with so much global turmoil in 2020, why not project a Midwest interstellar invasion into the mix.

The story itself is not complicated. Basically, it deals with peoples’ mostly nonchalant, then chaotic reaction to the presence of an extraterrestrial artifact. First thought to be an asteroid, it turns out to be the beginning of an invasion fleet from Mars.

Theatre in the Dark’s production is not about the story, but rather more about the dramatic performance in the telling of the tale which this company does very well.

It’s a study in contrast that depicts the laid back lives of many city dwellers who are going about their daily business while the first reports of odd occurrences in the seemingly remote village of Bourbonnais, 55 miles south of Chicago, begin to reach the downtown area.

Tension mounts as complacency leads to panic and then to mayhem.

It is probably safe to say that the majority of today’s theater goers have had little or no experience with traditional radio drama. The genre reached its commercial peak sometime in the early 1940’s then limped along into the beginning of the 1950’s.

Indeed, most of us are children of the television age for whom this style of entertainment is an oddity or curiosity. That makes this presentation much more interesting as it encourages performers and audiences alike to explore a nearly forgotten, or at least, underrepresented art form.

Because the audience, listening at home via Zoom, is using sound only with no visual cues such as facial expressions, gestures, or body language, the actors must be extra creative in the verbal projection of their characters.

This is a chance for them to exercise their emotional muscles audibly in a slightly over-the-top way, even flirting with full-on melodrama. Conversely, the audience is challenged to listen closely for the information needed to paint mental images of the situations and the shifting environment.

The construction of one’s mental picture is aided greatly by the sound design offered by Ross Burlingame and Corey Bradberry. They provide continuous, thoughtful, sound effects meshed with an effective, original music score by Ben Zucker.

A major question is why do this live over multiple performances? Tickets are needed for each performance. Why not simply record it?

I imagine part of the answer has to do with the fact that this is a live theater company and that is what they do.

However, one of the unique aspects of this particular production that makes it different from a traditional radio drama is that the actors themselves are not in the same room. They are not necessarily even on the same continent.

Each performer logged in remotely from various locations around the world using their own often makeshift home studios. In this way they are literally pushing the boundaries of what we think of as theater.

What is missing, of course, is the interplay between the audience and the actors. The feedback loop that brings energy to live performance is an element that is difficult to duplicate at a distance.

The freshness of multiple performances will rely on the extent to which the actors innovate and improvise as they discover new opportunities of expression.

But not having been in a theater for over six months, it was exciting to prepare for the eight o’clock “curtain.” This was accomplished by setting the lighting and adjusting my laptop and speakers in the living room, ready to provide an optimal listening experience.

Then, it was settling down with a glass of wine in eager anticipation of this unique event.

As a way to celebrate this Halloween season I encourage you to gather your “pod mates” and a few socially distanced friends (wherever they may be) to enjoy this performance online then consider a Zoom call together to  discuss the play or perhaps devise a disaster plan of your own.

Details:  Theatre in the Dark players Mack Gordon, Elizabeth McCoy, Alex Morales, Ming Hudson, Robinson J. Cyprian, and Lauren Ezzo will be performing “A War of the Worlds” through November 21, 2020 via Zoom. Running time is 90 minutes with a 10 minute intermission. For tickets and information visit  Theatreinthedark/tickets.

Reno Lovison

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