The setup: Ironically, it was the almost-entirely-sold-outness of another popular holiday show (iTheatre's perennially popular Back Home for the Holidays cabaret) that led Curtains to check out this offering in Mesa, which is in its second year. Tonight is actually your best chance to see Southwest Shakespeare Company's A Christmas Carol. The remaining performances are officially sold out, though the box office may be able to advise you about your chances.
The execution: In advance, I was most curious about David Vining's portrayal of Scrooge. He's a cherished local actor and teacher who, at least back in the '80s, could play a right bastard when necessary, but of late he's been cast as such sincere, loving, and, well, grandfatherly types that I wondered what he and director Don Bluth would do with the character. It was a revelation.
Bluth, who also adapted Charles Dickens' novella for this staging, has the performance begin with the author arguing the suitability of beginning a Christmas story with a reference to a dead guy (Jacob Marley, whose ghost is played, also excellently, by Bruce Heskett). As Dickens (Vining) makes his case, he urges his colleague to read the story aloud and, with a few swipes of a hairbrush (my nominee for Prop of the Year), transforms himself into the wounded, bellowing Scrooge.
In the intimate Farnsworth Studio at Mesa Arts Center, all the nuances of an actor's craft are revealed, for better or worse, and here it is to marvelous effect. After what are, for most people, several encounters with this story, you might think you understand the characters (who were, after all, so beautifully written to begin with). But Vining's Scrooge is so obviously a man who originally loved merriment, society, friendship, and fun that you feel for him almost instantly and delight in his expressions of warm emotion as the magical night passes.
Bluth also uses the small venue to great advantage when Heskett appears as the first ghost. Special visual effects would look silly here, and the two actors establish the eerie mood with the simple facts of the story: Dickens knows Marley is supposed to be dead, and Marley knows his time is limited and his mission is of vital importance.
Heskett speaks in weary (but intelligible) tones and forgoes quick movements or load moaning -- his ghost is an overworked and busy guy. Not being sound designers ourselves, my companion and I were also impressed with a mysterious resonant effect that Bluth employed when the late Marley spoke.
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The rest of the cast is also strong, especially Jesse James Kamps, who plays Christmas Present and a few other people -- his twinkling eyes and winning smile are coupled with a forceful presence that seems to say, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas -- or else."
The verdict: This is the most family-friendly live Carol I've ever seen. One of the many reasons is the amount of humor in the production -- not merely what's inherent in the writing, but also in Vining and the ensemble's familiar, joyous physicality that, additionally, does much to elevate the plot above its sad, grimy inspiration, beyond its dangerous nearness to theatrical cliché, into the realms of the human heart where it belongs.
A Christmas Carol continues through Saturday, December 22, at One East Main Street in Mesa. Admission is $12.50 to $33.50 -- purchase tickets here or call 480-644-6500. And if you can't get in, please consider making a donation to Southwest Shakespeare -- the company could really use a small miracle right now and is an institution that would leave a huge hole in the Valley's culture scene if it has to close.