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Theater Previews: Winter Tales and Dickens by Candlelight


Published December 8, 2005 at 3:05 a.m.

The holiday entertainment season is gathering steam: Nutcrackers pirouette through towns across the state; the Toys Take Over Christmas for their 15th year at the University of Vermont; and schools, churches and community theaters offer so many permutations of Christmas pageantry that satirist David Sedaris could write a local version of his Holidays on Ice. It may seem a stroke of madness to add anything to December's festivity-filled calendar, but this year two Burlington theaters have new entries with a timeless twist: old-fashioned storytelling.

Before there were high-kicking, sequin-clad Rockettes or ballerinas in frothy layers of tulle, even before kids playing Wise Men dressed in old sheets and cotton-ball beards, live entertainment meant gathering around a fire to read or tell stories as the weather outside got frightful. Vermont Stage Company's Mark Nash and Waterfront Theatre's Matt Wohl have chosen to take holiday theater back to its communal roots.

For Winter Tales, Nash has assembled material -- stories, poems, songs, even some silly Santa jokes -- from a broad range of traditions, and commissioned new tales from Vermont writers such as Chris Bohjalian and Philip Baruth. Master storyteller Willem Lange presides over a group of VSC regulars, who read the longer stories to the audience from a large, bound volume called Winter Tales. "The conceit is, it's a book that's been gathering stories for years," explains Nash.

In Dickens by Candlelight, Wohl puts a fresh spin on a holiday warhorse -- Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This three-person version is a hybrid between a reading and a full play, with the performers acting out multiple parts as well as narrating the scenes -- "so you keep a lot of Dickens' words," says Wohl. In hewing tightly to the original text, the adaptation preserves "his colorful narration as well as the colorful characters."

Neither show will be traditionally staged, with the audience seated in rows and actors performing on a stage. Instead, both will put attendees at candlelit tables -- "like coming into somebody's parlor," says Nash. Winter Tales will provide hot cider and ginger cookies; at Dickens, tea and homemade treats.

The inspiration for Winter Tales came in part from the success of Vermont Fiction Live -- evenings hosted by Lange at which local authors read from their work on the Flynn MainStage. "We wanted to have our own holiday traditional production," says Nash; the storytelling format supplied a simple and appealing solution. Reading aloud and being read to, he says, "takes us right back to our childhood."

If it seems that all the great Christmas stories have already been written, staged and filmed, "The good ones still to be told are the personal ones," Nash suggests. "It seems like there are infinite variations on the miracles, great and small, of the holiday season."

Winter Tales takes an ecumenical approach, broadening its scope beyond mainstream Christmas themes. "We wanted to be inclusive," Nash notes. "I'm more spiritual than I am religious, and I'm also very conscious of what's happening in our country culturally, with a greater desire to include the widest range of spiritual observances this time of year."

At the same time, "It's not a Hallmark-card kind of thing," he cautions. "There's a lot of humor, a lot of poignancy, but it feels like each of the stories recounts not an idealized holiday but an authentic experience."

Lange's own story, about a gruff rural Vermonter named Favor Johnson, could be seen as a traditional Christian allegory about melting a hardened heart. Baruth's vignette looks at how Swedish Christmas rituals, transported to Vermont, seem a bit wacky through the eyes of a non-Swedish spouse. Bohjalian's tale grows out of a simple Secret Santa exchange in a classroom. And Kathryn Blume's story uses the backdrop of Hanukkah to show how a child copes with the death of his friend's father in Iraq.

Blume also tells the solstice story that Nash -- her husband -- grew up hearing from his "nutty stepfather." As she explains in the script, he "decided that they needed a good Origin-of-Holiday story to go along with the greens-gatherings and bonfires and goat sacrifices and whatever else they were doing back then." The "Org Story," featuring characters such as SmOrgasbOrg, the Swedish cook and Saint Nickel Ass, is fall-on-the-floor funny.

Nash also solicited contributions from the community and received an avalanche of responses -- nearly 100 from adults and 200 from students. Almost every submission touched on the theme of family. "What was surprising to me was the number of dark stories that came through," says Nash. "People really used this opportunity to share some of their deepest feelings." Eight stories and five poems made the cut; each performance features a rotating selection of the finalists.

"It's very easy to get sentimental and sweet at the holiday time," Nash says. "And I really feel like our stories steer clear of that. I think we acknowledge in all of the stories that there is pain in the world, and that the holiday time isn't necessarily a respite from it, but that amidst the painful times there's also hope. There's also the miracle of community and connection."

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has certainly been over-sentimentalized and over-commercialized. It's the progenitor, in fact, of many other tales we find essential to the season. Without Ebeneezer Scrooge, his Ghosts and Tiny Tim Cratchit, there would be no George Bailey, his angel Clarence, Bedford Falls and It's a Wonderful Life; no Grinch, Cindy Lu Who and the Seussian denizens of Whoville in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. But when is the last time you actually read Dickens' book? "The language is so beautiful -- it's such a great piece of literature," says Matt Wohl. "And that's the whole idea of this show: finding a way of making this come alive."

If Scrooge has become a one-note cultural caricature, Wohl is enthusiastic about the power of Dickens by Candlelight to reconnect viewers with the story. "We want the audience to go on the journey that Scrooge goes through, because, really, this is about all of us. It's about redemption and the decisions we make and what we choose to make important in our lives."

Though the actors will be performing and not reading, Dickens by Candlelight seeks to conjure the atmosphere of hearing the tale as the Victorians would have: vividly read aloud around a crackling hearth. "Our three storytellers will be dressed in simple Dickensian garb. I'm viewing them as the three ghosts, in a way," says Wohl. "It's not that each of the performers plays a ghost . . . but it's almost like these three figures from another era are coming to tell you the story."

Rather than use the Water- front Theatre space itself, Wohl is setting the performance in the building's atrium, incorporating its large fireplace, slate floor and other architectural elements. For example, a detail on a wrought-iron gate will become the doorknocker that spooks Scrooge by morphing into Jacob Marley's face. The raised skylight chamber in the center of the ceiling will allow the actors to create ghostly echoes at appropriate moments.

Wohl discovered the Dickens by Candlelight adaptation when he was living in Orlando, Florida, where many people in the theater community also have day jobs with Disney. His friend Robin Olson created this version for a local Victorian tearoom, inspired in part by the interactive style popular at many Magic Kingdom entertainment venues. The actors circulate among the tables as they shift in and out of characters, and encourage a gentle bit of audience participation.

The closeness between performers and viewers reflects the intimacy Dickens establishes as an author between the narrator and his readers. Wohl hopes this playful immersion in A Christmas Carol will gives the audience a greater appreciation for its powerful message, which transcends what troubled Dickens about London in 1843 or what's wrong with the world in 2005. "It's saying, 'Yeah, things are bad, but we all have the power to make it better, each one of us,'" says Wohl. "We can look at ourselves and say, 'In this part of my life, I'm like Scrooge . . . I'm making decisions that probably aren't helping either the people close to me or mankind.'"

Dickens made Carol "so much beyond a Christmas story," says Wohl. "It's just about decency . . . about having that duty to your family, to your loved ones and to your community."

These themes echo in the stories of Winter Tales as well. And both productions set out to demonstrate that good old-fashioned storytelling is not a lost art in the age of the Internet. In fact, says Nash, "I think we crave it more than ever . . . There is something about the simplicity of sitting down and letting our imaginations work for us, as opposed to having it done for us with the movies and the videos and the games and everything. The sound of a voice creating images in your head is more magical than anything even Peter Jackson can come up with."

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