By David Templeton
“I wear the chains I forged in life!”
This ghostly report from the doomed spirit of Jacob Marley is among the most famous supernatural utterances in English literature. It’s also a fair metaphor for the heavy weight of responsibility carried by any theater company brave enough to stage Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This unstoppably popular story has been around for more than 170 years, and along the way it’s forged a long, weighty chain of expectations, adorations, misinterpretations, criticisms, dismissals and the weird, unkind backlashes that spring from any legendary story’s over-familiarity in the public eye.
Among the many reasons that 6th Street Playhouse’s current production of A Christmas Carol can claim to be called one of the best surprises of 2015, is that it embraces what’s made the tale so enduring, while also blazing new trails, finding fresh, entertaining possibilities in what has, in some adaptor’s hands, become stale and predictable.
With a strong, adaptable cast, an inventively clever script by Michael Wilson, sprightly, emotion-focused direction from Craig Miller and a delightfully steam-punk production design, this incarnation of the Dickens classic also makes maximum use of actor Charles Siebert as Ebenezer Scrooge. Performing rarely on local stages, Siebert’s North Bay appearances are always occasions to celebrate (6th Street’s Red, Cinnabar’s The Price).
As Scrooge—the miserly skinflint whose Christmas Eve haunting takes him backwards and forwards through his own history—Siebert is fancifully mesmerizing and terrifically, touchingly real, maintaining a remarkable level of creative generosity toward all others with whom he shares the stage.
As Marley—materializing to deliver a dire warning to his former business partner Scrooge—Alan Kaplan is wickedly, wackily menacing and also heartbreakingly earnest. As the various spirits of Christmas—past, present and future—Miller has assembled a trio of comic actors (Jessica Headington, Nick Christenson and Ryan Severt) who deliver delightfully spectral comedy while consistently landing sharp emotional punches when necessary—in one case, while towering over the stage on stilts.
The large, multi-age cast—with notably strong and/or hilarious performances by Jeff Coté as Bob Cratchit, Harry Duke as Mr. Fezziwig and Crystal Carpenter as Belle—works incredibly well as a shape-shifting, character-changing, scenery-moving ensemble. Tice Allison does nice work as well in a number of roles, bringing an admirably effective, clockwork creepiness to the blind undertaker he plays in just a few visually impressive scenes, and Janine LaForge makes the most out of the role of Mrs. Dilbert, Scrooge’s alternately opportunistic and aghast housekeeper, who gets a few more interesting notes to play in Wilson’s adaptation than in the original novel.
Beyond the performances themselves, praise must also be given to Miller’s technical team, whose clockwork set (Jesse Dreikosen), mood-making lights (Steven Piechocki) and otherworldly sound-design (Miller, with John Gromada) are some of the best seen at 6th Street in many a Christmas.
But, technical wizardry aside, no Christmas Carol can be a success without a first-rate actor in the role of Scrooge, upon whose shoulders the entire enterprise rests. Siebert, playing Scrooge as fully fleshed-out and appealingly human, is fascinating to watch, whether he’s snarling, gaping and recoiling in terror and heartbreak, or simply watching his fellow cast members turn this weighty warhorse into something truly light, lovely and inspiring.
‘A Christmas Carol’ runs Thursday, Dec. 3 through Sunday, December 20 at the 6th Street Playhouse; 52 W. 6th St., Santa Rosa; Thurs-Sat., 8pm; 2pm matinees on Saturday, Dec. 12 and 19, and all Sundays; $15-$37; 707/523-4185.