Pity the poor working stiffs at most regional theaters at this time of year, asked to prod the company’s tired old cash cow into life. Dust is blown off Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and actors cough and roll their eyes through visions not of sugarplums but of paychecks. Audiences, not knowing better, tend to be content.
“THIS MAY BE: the hardest thing I’ve directed,” says Columbus.
“Trinity’s Christmas Carol is wildly different because it’s new every time,” says Trinity Repertory Company’s new artistic director Curt Columbus, who is directing the show (November 17 through December 31) for the first time. “I hadn’t realized how important it was until a colleague of mine e-mailed me and said: ‘Oh, well, we’re trotting out Christmas Carol again. A tired old pony but it certainly makes a lot of money.’ ”
The seasonal treat is sweet for the company’s coffers as well as for audiences, being the single reliable seat-filler of the year, as with most theaters. The off-subscription event was expanded to two casts and performance runs 10 years ago.
But Trinity does it like no other theater in the country. On Washington Street the show is reconceived each year. The same magical adaptation by Trinity founder Adrian Hall and composer Richard Cumming is used — this is its 30th anniversary production. However, directors have been given free reign to change the music and, more significantly, change the tone and concept. Its Victorian era setting has ranged in tone from the chipper inevitability that Scrooge will wake up, to brooding over dark, satanic mills from which he eventually frees his workers.
Columbus admires the Trinity adaptation.
“Adrian and Deedee’s version is very complete and very true to the book,” he says. “It uses the Dickensian text really effectively in a lot of ways that a lot of the other adaptations can miss, because they’re so busy trying to wrestle it into theatricality. But Dickens. Well, Dickens is a theatrical writer to begin with and doesn’t need any wrestling.”
He adds another observation. “The thing that’s beautiful about this version: the economy of the storytelling that leads you to the reclamation — which we all know is coming, but at the same time should all hope is coming.”
That said, coming up with a fresh staging is hardly a walk in the park.
“This may be the hardest thing that I’ve ever directed,” says a man who has directed north of 75 productions. “And I’m including Chekhov.”
His interviewer, taken aback, tells him he’ll have to elaborate a bit.
“As with Shakespeare, there’s a certain economy to the storytelling and a way in which the transformation is mythic, archetypal,” he says. “And in order to do that, generally it’s really difficult.”
Rehearsing four 16-voice children’s choirs, selected and coached by music director Christine Noel, was a time-consuming bonus.
But this is a man who more often is beaming like a schoolboy than glowering like a taskmaster, so his enthusiasm about his concept for the production has been sweeping him along.
“We begin by seeing everything through Scrooge’s eyes, and the world is a dark and fractured place,” he says. "Dark the way a children’s book is dark. Dark in that he sees the rest of the world as his enemies and doesn’t see them as real people. And the story is really all about that Scrooge learns to actually see people.