Saturday, November 29, 2014

Start the Holidays Right with A Christmas Carol

By Genevieve Heinrich
Photos by Bob Goodfellow

Tara McGovern; Tim Budd
Iowa City - You would not be wrong to call me a curmudgeon. Every year, I struggle a bit more with the onset of the holiday season: I wrestle with expanding and contracting faith, I rage against super-sales and unrealistic wish lists, I fight the impact of sad memories (and moreso, sometimes, of happy ones). 'Tis the season of recalling that I am imperfect - that I likely will never buy my daughter the laptop she requests every year, that I will never bake as many Christmas cookies as my mother did, that I've abandoned my family's tradition of elaborately decorated presents in favor of my partner's habit of writing Tos and Froms directly on the wrapping paper, in Sharpie. In short, it's not easy for me to get "into the Christmas spirit."

A Christmas Carol can do it, nearly every time. Charles Dickens' tale of remembrance and redemption can, in its best incarnations, cut through my carefully honed cynicism and remind me to lighten up, already, because we are each of us filled with light. Riverside Theatre's current production is one of these best incarnations. The show is a performance of Paul Morella's adaptation of the story, framed as Dickens himself (Tim Budd) telling us the tale. It is, ostensibly, a one-man show - although, the clever and lovely ways that musician Tara McGovern is woven into the action belie that claim. Riverside's holiday offering is simple and effective: truly fine storytelling.

The stage for this show is sparsely set. Scenic coordinator Violet Virnig does a lovely job of evoking what is meant to be Dickens' sitting room (which doubles as many other story settings as the tale is told). It's off-putting, at first, to see such a large space used in this way... but the wide-spread nature of the set pieces allows for some wonderful space to play between them. You forget, soon enough, that this is a sitting room, as Budd's Dickens cavorts across and utilizes every bit of space available. Budd has a fearless physicality, and director Ron Clark makes full use of it in staging this piece.

The show takes a few minutes to find its feet. Budd's accent work seems stilted and forced at times, most noticeably at the evening's outset. This is also a very familiar property, and there are mood-killing moments in the early parts of the show when the audience responds to a well-known line with a laugh of recognition, having not yet been caught by the magic of this incarnation. The intense honesty of Budd's storytelling draws you in, however, and by the time he begins his unforgettable Marley, it's impossible to look away. He has all the marks of a master yarn-spinner. This skill differs, in subtle but profound ways, from the skill of acting, and it's beautiful to see a performer who rises to the top of both disciplines.

Mention must be made of the lighting in this production, designed by Jessica Fialko. It was a fantastic complement to the story, taking an active role in the telling of it. There are gorgeous dramatic moments, punctuated by lighting shifts that reflect and increase their intensity. The one visual aspect that drew me out of the moment was the sporadic use of projection on the back screen. It wasn't ineffective, but was used so sparingly that it was unnecessarily jarring when it did come into play. I would like to have seen it used more, or not at all. The blue color of the lights that lit the bottom of the screen in some moments was distracting as well. The color seemed distinctly modern, and drew attention from those scenes.

One of the most fun aspects of this show is the way in which Budd and fiddler McGovern interact. When Budd is Dickens the writer, McGovern the musician is his muse. The appropriately-selected Christmas carols she plays lend undercurrents of humor and plaintiveness to their scenes, and the music is also used much like the lighting, to punctuate and awaken and inform each moment. Dickens and his fiddler have increasing influence on each other as the show progresses, and McGovern and Budd have a playful relationship on stage that is fun to watch.

Tim Budd
If you are ready to dive headfirst into the joy that this season has on offer, do not miss Riverside's A Christmas Carol. This production, and Budd's performance, are everything that is still right with Christmas. If you're feeling curmudgeonly and aren't quite ready for the holiday to begin - do yourself a favor and go anyway. You won't regret having your mind changed. A Christmas Carol runs through December 14; more information available here. Grab the family and experience the joy, or go on your own, and experience renewal.

No comments: