Theater Review - Ghost of theatre past

Christmas Carol does live theater no favors

If the Alliance Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol is a holiday gift, where do we go to exchange it?

Like countless troupes across the country, the Alliance stages a version of the Dickens work every year, and at least three other theaters around the Atlanta area are doing likewise this season. But the show’s perennial productions feel less like a celebration than a sentence, with playhouses locked to Carol as tightly as the chains that encumber Marley’s ghost.

The Alliance offers a kind of holiday reunion with its new production, adapted and directed by former Associate Artistic Director David H. Bell and starring former Artistic Director Kenny Leon. Bell’s lavish Carol means to give people their money’s worth, with Leon’s mannered performance and some of the over-dramatic, gospel-style singers being big enough for a Super Bowl half-time show.

But the most difficult part of any Carol comes from its familiarity. It’s hardly a complex tale to begin with — a 30-second Wal-Mart commercial can convey its gist — and constant repetition dulls what universality the work has. Many audiences, no doubt, value the show because of that predictability, not in spite of it: Seeing Carol isn’t a chance to find something new, but to repeat a ritual spectacle of suffering and redemption, like a Passion Play at Easter.

Carol does no favors for theater as an art form. Contemporary drama competes with movies, music, television and plenty of other pop media. Those families whose only exposure to theater is Carol’s annual pageant of top hats, night shirts and bogus cockney accents will only get confirmation that drama is dusty, twee and hopelessly nostalgic — the opposite of the “living theater” we get, if we’re lucky, the other 11 months of the year.

The Dickens show is the biggest example of theater’s penchant for looking backward, but there are many more subtler ones. Consider how many playhouses use the British spelling “theatre” in their names. It’s grammatically acceptable but feels fussy and antiquated, like putting “Ye Olde” in the name of a store. It’s one thing to respect the traditions of an ancient art form, but quite another to be restrained by them. Hamlet almost never wears black tights any more.

Last-Minute Addition

7 Stages will be making a significant addition to its season by adding the drama Copenhagen, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 13-March 2. Playwright Michael Frayn won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play for his take on the relationship between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr and the latter’s wife Margrethe. With a reputation for being cerebral and engrossing, Copenhagen could have fit comfortably at several of Atlanta’s theaters, and it’ll be interesting to see how 7 Stages approaches it.

express Exit

Wier Harman has announced that he’s leaving as artistic director of Actor’s Express, a position he’s held for less than three years. Harman plans to step down in January and serve as an advisory role through April at the theater, in addition to directing Steve Murray’s play Manna in the spring. Harman says he wants to broaden his administrative abilities, ideally in an associate position at a larger theater, which would give him more opportunities to be mentored and fewer of the funding pressures that come with being Actor’s Express’ leader.

Replacing Actor’s Express founder Chris Coleman, Harman sustained the theater’s reputation for finding provocative new scripts and creative revivals of the classics. While Harman’s tastes ran slightly more to the cutting edge, in works like Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play, his 2001-2002 season ended in the black. Following the back-to-back artistic triumphs of Gypsy and Jane Eyre, Harman’s departure represents a significant blow to Atlanta’s theater community and its cultural reputation.

Chek It Out

Most of the city’s programs of original short plays skew toward comedy, like 30 Below and 8 1/2 x 11. Synchronicity Performance Group’s Anton Acts Out sports more serious intent. All of the works in the locally written show found inspiration in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which the troupe performs in repertory at 7 Stages’ Back Stage through Dec. 8.

Several of the shorts place Chekhov’s characters in new settings. David Crowe’s “The Music Box” envisions two of the title roles as children, while Rachel May, Three Sisters’ director, imagines what the siblings’ deceased mom was like in the monologue “Mother.”

Anton Acts Out’s best works are the ones in which the Chekhov connection is tenuous, if it exists at all. Michele Pearce’s “Losing Faith” finds a missionary torn between her religious faith and her physical attraction to a Russian woman. Sandra Deer’s “My Boarder is a Spy” takes a smart, sensitive look at a mother-daughter relationship in the face of Alzheimer’s. Deer’s piece is part of a full-length play called The Subject Tonight is Love, and it whets one’s appetite to see the whole thing. If Synchronicity had opted to stage the Deer play instead of Anton Acts Out, I don’t think Chekhov would have minded.

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.??