Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol for quick cash. Dallas Theater Center stages it every December for the same reason. Lots of theaters depend on this family-friendly chestnut to subsidize their seasons. It's that dependable a moneymaker.
Moving permanently in 2010 to the Wyly Theatre on Flora Street downtown, DTC bids farewell to its home stage of 50 years, Kalita Humphreys Theater in Oak Lawn, with its fourth reprise of Richard Hellesen's adaptation of Dickens' life-affirming tale of a miser reborn through Christmas Eve nightmares.
Turns out there is life in the old churl yet. This year's production, again directed by Joel Ferrell, might be its finest at this theater. It's big and fast, funny and sad, loud and lively. And this time DTC hasn't imported its Ebenezer Scrooge from out of town; he's played by resident acting company member Sean Hennigan.
Actors call this play "Christmas Hamlet" for good reason (and probably without knowing that Dickens used a quote from Shakespeare's play in early drafts of Carol's opening scene). Scrooge relives his past and glimpses his destiny in the course of the story, and whoever portrays him must be bigger than life but believably etched with human frailty. The audience also has to like Ebenezer Scrooge enough to have hope for him and to warrant shedding a few tears for his ultimate redemption. Hennigan is the man for the job, so effective at all of this, especially at turning the hateful old humbug into an enlightened, lovable uncle at the end, that he ought to get first dibs on the role whenever, wherever DTC does it in years to come.
The whole show this time around seems to have been brightened, refreshed and refurbished, though it's the same script, songs, scenery and choreography presented for the past four seasons. Besides Hennigan, there are other new actors in the large, diverse cast, and some old ones in new roles. Natalie King, making her DTC debut, brings a haughty elegance to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Deborah Brown wears jiggly curls and shows off her high soprano as a charmingly befuddled Mrs. Fezziwig. Christina Vela, as Mrs. Cratchit, makes a strong impression when she stiffens her back at Scrooge's meanness. Lynn Blackburn woos young Scrooge (handsome Jakie Cabe) as the winsome Belle, the girl he loses because he loves money more. Young Christian St. John Chiles, as Edward Cratchit and other juvenile characters, adds his quick comedic licks to many scenes.
Playing the Ghost of Jacob Marley for the first time at DTC is top Dallas actor James Crawford, whose imposing height and booming voice create a spectacular specter from the spooky beyond. Clanking across the fog-draped stage under loops of heavy iron, this Marley seems weighed down by sadness as he tries to convey the message to his old business partner Scrooge that even after death we wear the chains we forge in life.
Back to play, the Ghost of Christmas Past is Joanna Schellenberg, a tiny actress with a titanic stage presence. Perched atop Scrooge's four-poster bed, which glides around the stage like a ghost ship, Schellenberg guides him on a tour of his childhood and young adult years. There we see events that twist a nice young fellow into the Bernie Madoff of the 19th century.
Returning to the role of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's hapless clerk and father of crippled Tiny Tim, is the wonderful Chamblee Ferguson, fresh from his show-stealing role as Nick Bottom in DTC's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He's one of Dallas' best actors and maybe the most skilled reactor, a master of the well-timed flinch, the sly grimace and the warm, loving look. Ferguson's simple, sweet delivery of the eulogy for Tiny Tim (in one of Scrooge's dream-visits to the future) is the show's two-hanky moment.
Charles Dickens was in a professional and financial slump when he penned A Christmas Carol, all 66 pages in longhand, in just six weeks in 1843. He was writing The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby in installments at the time and needed money fast. Subtitled a "ghost story for Christmas," the illustrated novella of Carol didn't sell as briskly as Dickens had hoped, but it did pay for the completion of those other books. And it became an almost immediate classic, changing public attitudes toward charitable giving, particularly at holiday time. It's still doing its work, filling the coffers for artistic endeavors and inspiring people to part with their money for worthy causes, including the buying of tickets for a great night of theater.
There's nothing Christmas-y at all, you'll be happy to know, about Plan Nine From Outer Space, Level Ground Arts' low-budget staging of the 1959 sci-fi movie, now in the late-night weekend slot at the Dallas Hub Theater. The play is 75 minutes of cheap props, flimsy scenery, wooden acting, bungled cues and terrible dialogue—pretty much a perfect homage to the original film written and directed by Ed Wood Jr.
The stage version by writer-director Billy Fountain, who also co-stars in the Bela Lugosi role, stays loyal to its inspiration, long regarded as the worst motion picture ever made (though I'd argue that its shot-on-the-cheap weirdness is far more entertaining than modern big-budget science fiction blunders like Battleship Earth and Mamma Mia!). The Level Ground actors—Andi Allen, Zac Ramsey, Robert G. Shores, Tyler Wilson, Brooke Riley—seem to have studied every syllable and gesture in the flick. Allen practices the flat affect and monotonous speech of Mona McKinnon, the non-actress who played housewife Paula Trent onscreen. That's killer funny. Allen also flits in and out in many other roles, wearing a different wig and vacant expression for each. Ramsey and Wilson are silly as hell using odd accents and awkward timing as airline pilots spotting UFOs.
Just like the film, the airplane scenes are acted against a shower curtain backdrop. And the flying saucers are glued-together picnic plates dangled on a string.
The plot, if you can call it that, is less sturdy than the saucers. Aliens, zombies, A-bombs, car wrecks, Dracula. Level Ground's cast injects some of their own madness, mostly when pieces of the scenery fly apart, which happens frequently. Their judicious use of puppets, Barbie dolls, fog machines and lawn furniture adds to the wack factor.
With 37 company members working for next to nothing, Level Ground Arts may be the most ambitious, minimally funded and strangest (in a good way) acting company in town at the moment. They drew standing room crowds this fall for Evil Dead: The Musical, then played to crickets with an experimental new drama by Fountain called Crushing Grain, about Lee Harvey Oswald. They sometimes have three shows running at once and plan to produce at least nine more, including the premieres of three musicals and another B-movie tribute, next year.
To borrow a line from Plan Nine: I'll bet my badge that we haven't seen the last of these weirdies.