By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Daryl Cloran has discovered an infallible new applause line, simple but profound. He’s used it in pre-show remarks to audiences at the Citadel’s productions of The Fiancée, Bears, and The Garneau Block this fall. Same effect every time: “I just say ‘it’s so nice to have you back’. And the audience always cheers….”
Anticipate then the reverb when a venerable Edmonton tradition of some 22 seasons standing returns to live and in-person this week: the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol. It comes after last year’s 90-minute film version that, of necessity in the dark circumstances of December 2020, took David van Belle’s screen adaptation of his own adaptation of the evergreen Dickens novella, which premiered in 2019, to people on location in their own homes.
Citadel artistic director Cloran, who directed both stage production and film, says the latter (a $250,000 venture made possible by EPCOR’s Heart and Soul Fund and the Edmonton Community Foundation) “was all about finding a way to be connected even though we were apart…. It looked beautiful; we were all so thrilled. Lots of people watched it. For a ‘pandemic pivot’, pretty great!” ”
Now, Christmas 2021. “We’re back! And this time it’s a celebration of being a community again!” For many of his cast, says Cloran, “it’s their first show back after nearly two years. And for lots of our audience it’s going to be the same.”
The Citadel’s $1 million production, a successor to 19 seasons of Tom Wood’s Victorian era best-seller, propels the flinty Ebenezer and his dark night of the soul ahead a century. It’s 1949, in Marley’s department store. The visions of Mr. Scrooge (Ted Dykstra), its cold-eyed, acid-tongued proprietor and boss, run not to sugarplums but profit margins and overtime.
The music, relocated in space and time, too, is gathered from the familiar post-war secular Christmas songbook of hits like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, White Christmas, Winter Wonderland.
If the song of the dozen or so in the production songbook that resonated most poignantly in 2020 was the melancholy Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas with its thought that “some day soon we all will be together … if the fates allow.” It’s 2021 and we’ve all muddled through somehow. Our circumstances this year give I’ll Be Home For Christmas, with its wistful “if only in my dreams,” a new emotional palette too. There are many festive reunions in the offing.“My parents arrive from Sarnia today,” said Cloran last week. “We haven’t seen them, and they haven’t seen their grandkids, in two years!”
“For many people A Christmas Carol is that kind of reunion.”
Playwright Van Belle echoes the thought. COVID grinds on and on. “But we’re starting to get there… We will actually be present in a space together. Something about that is really powerful, and especially important at Christmas time. Hearing songs sung in a room full of people is a beautiful thing.”
Those songs were trimmed, sometimes to fleeting sound allusions, for the 90-minute film version. They’re back. To van Belle’s delight, so are “the extra characters I dearly love,” like the immigrant family who ask Mr. Scrooge for directions and get back a withering “Learn. To. Speak. English.”
“Everything is back to its 2019 glory!” says Cloran happily. “From a production standpoint we’ve changed a couple of moments around the ghosts, added a few new elements…. And it’s a chance to finish the costumes we didn’t have the time or resources to finish!”
Since the Maclab backstage is particularly tiny and cramped, the 35-actor cast list of 2019 has been reduced by 10, five fewer kids, five fewer adults. But, led again by Ted Dykstra as Mr. Scrooge, it’s still a strikingly large big ensemble (with live music) by the standards of the pandemic theatre landscape, dotted with one- or two-person adaptations. Theatre Calgary’s Christmas Carol, returning this year, has three actors.
It’s complicated, and labour-intensive, to pull off a large-cast musical any time. In the time of COVID, the ante is upped exponentially with rapid testing, masks, daily check-ins. The adults have been vaccinated. So have the kids, who are all 12 or older in this year’s production.“We joke that Tiny Tim (Ivy deGagné does the honours) is Moderately-Sized Tim,” laughs Van Belle.
Three people on the Citadel production team are assigned full-time to managing COVID protocols. Director, stage manager, and crew are all masked all the time. The actors rehearsed in masks; onstage they’re mask-less. But when they exit the stage and even during costume changes, “there’s a mask waiting for them,” says Cloran. It adds a whole other layer to the time-honoured ‘getting into character’ actor’s mantra. “Everyone is going the extra mile,” says van Belle of the cast, most of whom are returning to the show this year.
And, as extra insurance, there’s a cast of understudies too, by no means the usual in Canadian theatre where ‘the show must go on’ is the operational law that overrules all others. “Some of the extras I hope we can maintain,” says van Belle. “It makes theatre practice more resilient, more flexible.”
Does A Christmas Carol have a different reverb at the end of 2021? He thinks of it as “a container story. The mythology and meaning of the time fill that container….”
“Who are we this year? We’re Scrooge at the end of the play, on Christmas morning.” We’re Scrooge after his long dark night of the soul. “He has a choice,” says van Belle. He’s ‘what am I going to do today? How am I going to behave differently?’ He has to start making new choices, on a moment to moment basis.”
“I think that’s where we are this year. How do we want to put things back together? The way they were before? Or do we want to say ‘I’m not the person I was?’ What are we we going to do with the knowledge of who got left behind?”
It’s a Christmas morning moment.
A Christmas Carol
Theatre: Citadel Theatre
Written by: David van Belle from the Charles Dickens novella
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Ted Dykstra, Julien Arnold, Ruth Alexander, Oscar Derkx, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Patricia Zentilli, Lilla Solymos, John Ullyatt, Priya Narine
Running: through Dec. 23
Tickets: 7890-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com