‘A Christmas Carol’ at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Like most Americans of a certain age, I have seen A Christmas Carol… a lot. I have seen multiple different iterations of the traditional story, I have seen Scrooge!, I have seen Scrooged. This is well-worn, well-covered territory. So I am happy to say that Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol, running this weekend at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, has much about it that is fresh and new and attention-grabbing.

 Tad Janes and Gene Fouche. Photo by Anca Wyland.
Tad Janes and Gene Fouche. Photo by Anca Wyland.

Let’s start with the running time: The show runs just over an hour and a half. The pace is energetic without feeling rushed, with smooth, practiced transitions between scenes. The energy level is aided by the tone of the piece, balanced tenuously between cheerful humor and an ominous darkness. The resulting suspense helps to move things along, and keeps the audience wanting to see what happens next…even when they know what happens next. A minimalist set design by Set Designer Tad Janes (who also plays Scrooge) consists of a bridge-like construction that remains upstage to allow the action to move on multiple levels, while larger set pieces like tables, beds and desks move in and out as needed. As a result, the focus remains on the actors where it belongs.

Director Julie Herber’s cast is carefully chosen and works seamlessly together. Tad Janes as Ebenezer Scrooge brings a humor and emotional range to the character that makes him seem much more human than the snarling caricature we often see. In fact, Janes may succeed a bit too well; I found myself thinking that his Scrooge wasn’t so bad, and questioned why everyone was so frightened of and resentful towards him. DC Cathro as Scrooge’s routinely mistreated scrivener, Bob Cratchit, was another standout with the ability to convey more with a sideways glance and a raised eyebrow than many people can with words. Bill Stitely (Scrooge’s Nephew/Young Ebenezer), Géné Fouché and Karen Heyser-Paone as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively, Ashley Hall (Belle), and Lisa Burl (Mrs. Cratchit) lent strong support. The child and teen roles in this play are double cast, with Cast B taking opening night honors. Ysa Seltzer as Tiny Tim was appropriately adorable and plucky with great rapport with Mr. Cathro as Tim’s father, so that it was truly moving and not merely saccharine to watch them during Tim’s physical decline throughout the show.

The large ensemble was strong overall and moved smoothly between the multiple roles they were asked to inhabit. With the exception of Mr. Janes, all of the cast members served in the ensemble in addition to their main roles. Their primary function was as a Greek chorus: simultaneously narrating the action and passively observing it. The effect was jarring and disquieting – but in a good way – as actors segued between cheerfully stating their lines and starting blankly from the background. It was as if a chorus of Ghosts of Christmas Past had appeared to tell the tale.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the technical aspects of the show, as they are almost another character. The costumes (also designed by Director Herber) are period-appropriate yet practical; the actors actually seem to be wearing them like real clothing as opposed to just modeling them. Lighting Designer Greg M. Davis did a wonderful job creating changing moods and atmosphere without calling undue attention to the lighting itself. I am not typically a fan of pre-recorded music, but in this case, it successfully underscored the action without overwhelming it.

Technical Director Douglas Grove skillfully uses both a nearly imperceptible running crew and the cast to effect the scene changes which were universally smooth and quick. One involving a graveyard springing up suddenly in the middle of the stage and another where the ensemble literally disappears under a large nylon parachute were particularly effective.

There were some difficulties with microphones and sound levels throughout the first act that were largely ironed out except in larger group scenes by Act II. Also, audiences should be aware that there is a particularly strong-smelling smoke used during much of the second act, so those who are particularly sensitive to odors or chemicals may want to choose seats further back in the theater.

Ashley Hall and Bill Stitely. Photo by Anca Wyland.
Ashley Hall and Bill Stitely. Photo by Anca Wyland.

Overall, this was an enjoyable production that kept even this A Christmas Carol veteran engaged throughout. Unfortunately, it is playing ONLY this weekend, so get online and nab your tickets quickly! The Weinberg Center is easy to find, and ample garage parking is available nearby for only two dollars after 5 pm.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

A Christmas Carol plays at Maryland Ensemble Theatre performing at The Weinberg Center – 20 West Patrick Street in Frederick, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 694-4744, or purchase them online.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS7.gif