A Christmas Carol, put on annually by the Indiana Repertory Theatre for 18 years now, has become a holiday tradition for many of the company’s patrons. But the stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s beloved tale is still evolving—and IM has the scoop on this year’s serving of a classic dish.
The cast welcomes a new Bob Cratchit to the show, Mark Scheibmeir—a film and stage actor from L.A. Scheibmeir made the transition from film (which he studied in college) to theater via small performances around Austin, Texas, where he went to graduate school. Austin is known for having a boisterous art scene and with it a thriving theater crowd. Scheibmeir recalls performing in small shows in uncommon venues like apartments and even post offices. “[The shows] could be anything you wanted them to be,” he says. “I think that helped me grow a lot.”
Scheibmeir has found the shift from film to theater to be challenging and gratifying. “You start to get confortable with it because you can learn by watching,” he says. “The transition is interesting because it is very different. You utilize a lot of the same things, [so it’s] mainly a question of scale. There is a lot of technical things in each one of them, but they are very different. In film it is the angle where the camera is hitting you … With huge house like this in a Christmas Carol, you know how big you have to be to make it a certain way.”
“There is nothing like being on stage,” Scheibmeir continues, “being out there for an hour and a half or two hours at a time, and there is no rest. That is something that is really wonderful—to be able to inhabit that character completely for that amount of time.”
At one recent performance of A Christmas Carol, Scheibmeir was able to make his presence plenty big enough for the stage. As an audience member, you couldn’t help but feel happy for Cratchit, the poor father, as he joyfully swung Tiny Tim up to this shoulder. “I definitely have my moments where I am cranky or don’t want to get up in the morning,” says Scheibmeir. “Then I get up and put on that Bob Cratchit hat and think, ‘Everything is great’ … People talk about the leaner years in their life, those being some of the most joyful times … That is the Cratchits. That is their life. It has been their life for a long time.”
In the IRT’s production, the stage never holds more than about a dozen actors at a time—all of them taking the role of narrator at least once. A full house and the theater’s intimate setting can make audiences feel a part of the story. The stage is set with a field of snow and an oversized picture frame, the use of which was remarkably creative: It functions as everything from a door to a mirror. The seamless movement of actors and props is impressive. But the fake snow can be slippery for new actors. Scheibmeir confesses that a dance that comes at the end of the show was the source of more than one slip and fall during rehearsals. “From the audience’s perspective, they see all this white snow and they are like, ‘Oh, how pretty,’ while in my head I am thinking, ‘Okay, I have got to be really careful,’” he says.
One of the difficulties of a timeworn play is that everyone has their own opinions of how it should be. At a recent show, actor Ryan Artzberger’s portrayal of Scrooge was a novel one. He seemed to be more sad and tired than innately cruel or hardened by years of shutting people out, the typical approach to the character. His maniacal laugh after awaking from sleep caused Bob Cratchit (and this reviewer) to wonder whether he was in need of a straight jacket. The vocals of Fred (Scrooge’s nephew, played by Matthew Brumlow) were better suited to lines than song, but his performance burst with emotion that even the balcony could feel.
The production has one of the most unique sets around. Russell Metheny, the scenic designer, took on the job after proclaiming, “The only way I’ll do this set is with no set.” The set never changes: A white, open plain of snow sets the stage for both the warm home of the Cratchits and the looming graveyard of Christmas Future. Metheny’s idea was to have a set that was like a stage with an open hole in the ceiling, letting in snow from outside. “You are left to imagine a lot of it as the audience, which is such a gift,” says Scheibmeir. But do choose your seats wisely. The front row is essentially a splash zone for fake snow from the stage, and at the performance I saw, a young boy was covered in it by Scrooge’s celebration after his dreamland travels.
A Christmas Carol. Show run now through Dec. 24. Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W Washington St., 317-635-5252. Show run now through Dec. 24. Tickets at irtlive.com.