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The Spirit of Christmas

Local theaters serve a mix of seasonal cheer

Children from North Beach and Chesapeake Beach make up the chorus in Twin Beach Players’ A Christmas Carol. <<photo by Kim Rannacher>>

The spirit of Christmas is a more complex concoction than a dash of ho-ho-ho and a splash of jinglebells. For this is the season of deliverance: hope is born, sorrow and loss salved, our better selves risen over our baser. Getting it right — mixing big dreams with dark regret, leavened by love and served in hope — is an annual job done for us by our local theater companies.
    It can be a tough job, according to Twin Beach Players’ president Sid Curl, for audiences are at their most traditional during the Christmas season. That means they want to see A Christmas Carol, 19th-century English novelist Charles Dickens’ tale of the 11th hour redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, whose ideals have collapsed in on him, hardening his heart and crushing all around.
    In A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote the recipe for the spirit of Christmas, drawing on the human condition, including the bitter poverty of England’s mid-19th-century industrial cities.
    “We’re sick of A Christmas Carol,” Curl laments. “But audiences just love it. They saw it when they were kids, and they want to share it with their children and grandchildren.”
    Some years the Calvert County theater group — a true community company of all ages, skills and aspirations — skips the Charles Dickens’ classic for a comic romp. Not this year.
    “We’re doing it as a family celebration,” Curl told me. “Not only for the audiences but also for families that get involved through our kids, costumes and makeup.”
    Fifty-five children and 10 adults bring this year’s Carol to life.
    As well as tradition, “We’ve always got a few tricks up our sleeves,” says Curl. “The ghosts will be challenging and fun in how they’re brought to life before your eyes.”
    The 85 folding chairs in the gym of the North Beach Boys and Girls Club were occupied on Thanksgiving weekend, when this year’s Carol debuted, as playgoers opened their hearts to the spirit of Christmas.
    Annapolis playgoers love A Christmas Carol so dearly that they willingly queue in the early morning hours the December Saturday that tickets go on sale for Colonial Players’ production. That line has become as traditional as the company’s 35-year-old made-to-order Carol, adapted from Dickens by Rick Wade with music by Dick Gessner. Beloved as Colonial’s Carol is, it became too much of a good thing. Since 2007 Colonial Players has put it on every-other-year rotation.
    Colonial’s December play this year, Morning’s at Seven, is not a Christmas story. Yet it stirs the Christmas spirit. “A funny, heartwarming treat,” writes Bay Weekly reviewer Jim Reiter in this week’s Playgoer, “it’s a nice holiday present from a local theater company that has been making Annapolis grateful for 67 years.”
    Christmas spirit in another traditional recipe is served by Annapolis Shakespeare Company, Chesapeake Country’s newest professional troupe.
    It’s a Wonderful Life is a century younger than A Christmas Carol. But since Frank Capra wrote the story of George Bailey (based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story) as a movie, it’s warmed hearts in almost equal measure. A twist on the classic story of a selfless man’s redemption from despair is playwright Joe Landry’s 1996 adaptation, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Sized to smaller theaters and acted as a story within a story, it’s this version we’ll see in Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Intimate Studio 111 beginning this weekend.
    In the Company’s first Christmas production, principal Sally Boyett promises “all of the iconic moments from the film” — and more.
    The time: Christmas Eve 1946, the year It’s a Wonderful Life appeared on the screen. The place: a radio station, where five actors are dramatizing the story for listeners at home. The actors: five “very seasoned professionals,” award nominees with teaching as well as performing credentials. Back stage are a director, Catholic University’s Jay D. Brock, and production designers of equal standing.
    Here’s how it all comes together:


Radio performers knew how to change their voices, so in Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, each actor plays several roles. 
<<photo by Joshua McKerrow>>

    “The convention of a radio play expands,” says Boyett, who is appearing on her own stage for the first time. “There’s a lot of staging. The actors are not just standing at mikes. It moves very quickly with Christmas music, familiar songs from the movie, including Christmas and Auld Lang Syne, some very nostalgic radio jingles and lots of live Foley.”
    Foley, borrowed from the name of a sound artist in silent movies, is ­theater speak for sound effects.
    Playgoers will be seeing and hearing, Boyett says, “all the ambient and mechanical sounds that would be in a radio play, even to a hanging thunder sheet.”
    The five acting pros add another dimension of sound.
    “Characters are very original in our production, but who they are supposed to be,” says Boyett. “We’ll be bringing our own voices and switching from one character to the next in an instant as the premise is radio actors who knew how to change their voices. Voice and dialect coach Nancy Krebs worked with perhaps 40 different ­voices as three of the actors each play 10 or 12 roles.”
    Thus, Boyett plays Lana Sherwood — plus 11 other female roles, characters from six years old to 60.
    From acting to production, “It’s a fun challenge,” Boyett says. “It fits well in our space, and we can use our architecture to help create our ambiance.”
    It’s another wonderful way to fill your heart with the spirit of Christmas.