A fresh look at a holiday classic: TheatreSquared artistic directors reimagine “A Christmas Carol”

Courtesy photo

Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” a novella published in 1843, has been adapted for the stage, film and television more times and in more different ways than anyone could possibly count. Now TheatreSquared has come up with its own adaptation, one that the artistic directors believe is true to the Dickens story, but offers a fresh look at the beloved holiday classic.

What: “A Christmas Carol”
When: 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 27
Where: TheatreSquared’s new home at 447 W. Spring St., Fayetteville
Cost: $17-$49; a limited number of $10 are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: 479-777-7477 or theatre2.org

Amy Herzberg, the company’s associate artistic director, and Robert Ford, artistic director, have taken the familiar story and characters, and added a framing device, or envelope, in which to place the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve transformation. Set in a library a few days before Christmas and on the very day the library has received a copy of Dickens’s eagerly awaited new book, a librarian comes across a young boy still in the reading room an hour after closing time. He claims he is waiting to be picked up by his father, though it’s possible he has been abandoned. To pass the time, the librarian begins reading the novella to the boy, and through the magic of theater, the story she reads comes to life in the boy’s imagination, the library becomes a stage set and the two are transformed into characters in the drama.

“We feel a strong kinship with our library, which is just a couple of blocks away from our new building,” Herzberg said in a recent interview, explaining the inspiration for the library setting. “Like the library, we’re all about storytelling, embracing the widest possible range of voices, and celebrating language and great literature.”

The character of the Librarian grew naturally out of the library setting, Herzberg added. Needing someone for the Librarian to read to, the character of the Boy was a natural, especially given Dickens’s well known concern for the welfare of children.

Adapting the novella themselves allowed Herzberg and Ford to refresh the story and to explore certain themes of the book in more detail than is typically done in similar adaptations. In particular, they wanted to delve into Scrooge’s back story and explore that character as a human being. Writing their own adaptation also allowed them to preserve more of the language from the book.

“Dickens’s descriptive language is unsurpassed,” said Herzberg. “That said, Bob and I aren’t crazy about direct narration to the audience, which further brought us to the idea of pairing a librarian with a child to read the story to, and a real purpose for reading it.”

In addition to co-adapting the book, Herzberg directed the production.

“The other reason we wanted to adapt this is that it is just really fun,” said Ford. “It’s fun to take raw material and tell it the way you want to tell it, in the moment we’re in and the community we’re in. Even in the space we’re in.”

Ford hastened to add that audiences can still expect to see the wonderful, magical “Christmas Carol” they know and love.

“We haven’t done anything bizarre with it,” he said. “Every moment that people have come to cherish in the novel or in the movies, in the different ways they’ve seen this story before, I’m pretty sure that all of those moments have been preserved, but with little adjustments. Little additions. Little moments of newness.”

TheatreSquared plans to produce “A Christmas Carol” annually.

“We want this to become a perennial piece of family theater,” said Ford. “In order to justify that, we wanted to get in and turn things just a little bit so it’s not the same old story. For someone who’s seen all the movies and other stage adaptations, we want them to have a reason to come and re-encounter the story.”

TheatreSquared mounted “A Christmas Carol” once before, in 2013, a production directed by Morgan Hicks from her own adaptation. In it, six actors played all the characters in the story.

The cast of the current production is moderately large, with twelve actors portraying some 80 characters. The cast includes a number of actors who will be familiar to area theatergoers, including James Taylor Odom, Bryce Kemph, Elizabeth Jilka and Beck Crabb, a middle schooler from Bentonville who made a big impression last fall in the role of John Webster in TheaterSquared’s production of “Shakespeare in Love.”

“It’s a new theater and ‘A Christmas Carol’ is canonical,” said Ford, summing up the company’s rationale for including the play in this season’s lineup. “In the same way we did ‘Shakespeare in Love’ as a paean to our origins in western theater, we said, let’s kick off the new building with a real chestnut. But let’s reinvent that chestnut.”

“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 27 on TheatreSquared’s main stage.