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‘A Christmas Carol’ Retold

Milwaukee Rep’s new production of the holiday favorite

Nov. 22, 2016
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In Milwaukee, A Christmas Carol is more than just a story. It’s a tradition. It marks the beginning of the holidays, and for many it’s their introduction to the live arts. It’s a familiar and all-too-relatable story that has been told for years. This year, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater continues that tradition with a new adaption of the play by Artistic Director Mark Clements. The Milwaukee Rep, now in its 63rd season, is known for exceptional productions that represent the city’s diverse community. 

The Rep is committed to offering new, different and always entertaining theater. This is apparent in Clements’ adaption of A Christmas Carol. “I think that every now and again the show needs to be rejuvenated,” Clements said. While the telling of the story remains rather traditional and true to the novel, Clements wants to enhance the audience’s viewing experience. “I wanted to present the play in a way that I would want to see it. It is a ghost story, so we wanted to heighten the shock and magical factors of those characters and create an environment where they can shine.”

This year, the play offers new lighting, a new set with a giant double turntable, a new score that resembles that of a movie soundtrack, lots of effects and lots of surprises, including snow in the Pabst Theater. It also breaks the fourth wall as characters address the audience directly—asking questions for moral guidance. This addition to the play was inspired by British pantomime, a popular form of theater known for its inclusion of slapstick, dance and audience participation.

“I wrote 10 pantomimes when I was an artistic director in England,” Clements said. “There were elements about that which allow the audience to ask questions on their journey. Scrooge’s journey to redemption seemed like a great opportunity to have him and the ghosts ask direct questions to the audience about guidance and acting as a moral compass to his redemption.” 

Another exciting change is the addition of the story’s original author, Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Dickens sets the mood of the play by beginning to read A Christmas Carol to the audience and slowly morphing into his own characters. This is based on the fact that Dickens used to tour the country reading his stories to large audiences. “It’s a fun way to get in and out of the story. It’s a different take on it,” said actor Jonathan Wainwright, who is playing the lead of Scrooge and Dickens. This is Wainwright’s first time as Scrooge for the Rep, but he has played the character of Mr. Cratchet for the last four years; two of those four years included him understudying Scrooge. “I’ve had four years to have my thoughts on Scrooge. I’ve come into it with a certain thought in mind. It’s about marrying and adapting my thought as much as possible to this new production,” Wainwright said.

One does not have to have been a part of A Christmas Carol for four years like Wainwright to relate to the story, though. “So much of what is said in this play translates perfectly to our audience. It’s all relevant always,” Wainwright said, explaining the timelessness of the story. “We all make choices that were maybe the wrong ones for the wrong reasons, and there’s regret. That’s the hardest place to keep yourself, in the world of regret, and Scrooge has gone so far past the regret to acceptance of his loneliness and solitude.”

In the end, the play is meant to be an enjoyable, wondrous experience for everyone. “We sell this as a family entertainment. I really wanted to create a cross-generational experience of A Christmas Carol,” Clements said. “Whether you’re 66 or six, you could really enjoy this collectively. It’s very much a shared experience.” His new adaption of A Christmas Carol is meant to bring people together and back to the theater. 

“I would love for this to grow to be a great tradition like pantomimes are in Britain, where you come almost like an annual pilgrimage because it’s something you love doing with your family and friends,” Clements said. “I think there’s a real opportunity to do that, and I think as people become aware of the aesthetic and how we’re telling the story, they are going to enjoy that experience and hopefully want to repeat that.”

A Christmas Carol runs from Nov. 29 through Dec. 24 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. For tickets and further information, call 414-224-9490 or visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com.

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