A Christmas Carol

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday December 11, 2017

It's rare that I see any show twice, but Portland Playhouse's productions of "A Christmas Carol" are something special. Three separate ice storms thwarted my attempts to see it last year, so I was determined to make it this year. I was well rewarded for my determination.

Portland Playhouse is currently undergoing a renovation that has displaced the company for the season, but the Portland Opera opened their rehearsal space at Hampton Opera Center to the Playhouse for this year's production of "A Christmas Carol." I was curious what would happen to the play without the charm of the church they turned into a theatre, Portland Playhouse's usual space, which effortlessly enhances the Dickensian setting. But directors Brian Weaver and Cristi Miles didn't miss a beat; the black-box rehearsal space transformed into a haunted and haunting space for this timeless story.

What makes Portland Playhouse so special is their ingenuity. Someone at the creative-decision making level has a sense that anything is possible, and they make all those possibilities come true in their shows. For "A Christmas Carol," a ghost story involving time travel, otherworldly sounds and voices and characters, the Portland Playhouse applies their deceptively simple magic to every moment of the play.

Scenic and lighting designer Dan Meeker populated the spare set with musical instruments and a large cast, and the use of fabric as scene changes, curtains, or to evoke the passing of time is surprising and delightful. The play is staged "arena" style, or surrounded on all four sides by audience, and the lack of vertical staging heightens the dreamlike quality of the play.

Lacking their homey, ancient-feeling church/theatre home, with its exposed beams and creaky floors adding burnished luster, "A Christmas Carol" found a fitting temporary home at Hampton Opera Center.

"A Christmas Carol" was adapted for this performance by Rick Lombardo, who also provided lyrics to original music he wrote with Anna Lackaff. These contributions are a potent part of the show, adding depth and interest to a tried-and-true play. When Marley (Sarah Smith), the Ghost of Christmas Past (Rachel Lewis) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Charles Grant) repeat Scrooge's earlier words back to him in an accusatory tone, Scrooge's ugliness stands out in greater relief.

Smith's Marley is a terror, the chain rattling sending shivers as her voice boomed the warning from the grave. She was awe-inspiring. Lewis is a standout with a sharp energy and beautiful, clear voice adding to her considerable acting skills. Grant is a whirlwind of dramatic flourish, the most joyous and wonderful Ghost of Christmas Present I've seen. As the main character, Todd Van Voris is spectacular; his voice, physicality, expressions are peak Scrooge.

The role of music in "A Christmas Carol" is played by everyone in the cast, and what a delight. In a sweet and fitting addition to the character Cratchit (Julian Remulla) plays the violin and sings -- quite beautifully. Remulla's Cratchit has a poetic strength I haven't seen in others, and the romance between him and Mrs. Cratchit (Claire Rigsby) is a lovely addition to the tale. Rigsby also surprises and shines as Old Joe, the nasty man who pays the scavengers for Scrooge's discarded belongings.

Three keyboards grace the stage -- an upright, an organ and a child's toy piano -- in addition to a harpsicord that made an appearance during intermission. There was a ukulele, a guitar, a triangle, a floor tom (drum), a trumpet and a waterphone (look it up!), and it appeared that everyone in the cast sang at one time or another. And the singing voices of these children! Alice (Lauren Clark) and Tiny Tim (Rainbows Leoniak) sing a duet that turns into a chorus with the other Cratchit children that's simply marvelous. The music is a wonderful addition to the play, and quite well done.

I'm an unabashed fan of winter holidays, of Christmas in particular, and of "A Christmas Carol." That means I've seen a LOT of performances of this play, and this was by far my favorite of all time. With the flood of two-bit remakes and hackneyed retellings of classic stories on TV and in the movies this time of year, this production of "A Christmas Story" is a lively, textured, intriguing and wholly satisfying presentation of this beloved play.

"A Christmas Carol" runs through December 30 at Portland Playhouse, staging at Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers Street, Portland, OR 97214. For tickets and information, call 503-241-1802 or visit http://www.portlandplayhouse.org/acc/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.