The lighted windows of chalkboard architectural cutouts evoking Victorian London greet audience members as they shuffle to their seats at Portland Stage for the 15th anniversary production of the Dickens holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

The mood is somber and the action begins as a chorus of shadowed figures enters from the wings. A panoramic image of a gray cemetery dominated by a huge Celtic cross is projected on the back wall of the theater. Fading in from the distance, we hear a strange, disturbing dissonance counterpointed by young children singing Christmas carols.

Two candles are stuck in the darkness on the desk of Bob Cratchit and his curmudgeon of a boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, as they toil away in the cold, London counting house of Scrooge and Marley.  

The outside ruckus invades the interior in a dreamlike dance as the chorus of gray mysterious figures crowd menacingly around the bald, crouched figure of Ebenezer Scrooge. It is a haunting and very effective opening, and presages what is about to transpire.

After this brilliant opening, the play settles in as Scrooge intones his miserly tirades of humbug and misanthropy.

Ron Botting, a regular member of the Portland Stage Acting Company, does a credible job as the cheerless, penny-pinching codger. He grumbles and complains, bickering with all well-wishers and decries that “… any idiot who goes about with ”˜Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly in his heart.”  

Botting, however, is at his best as the Scrooge who pleas for redemption in his Act 2 monologue, “I am not the man I was.”

The unusual cast consists of just seven principal actors and 13 young associate actors that make up the busy ensemble. In fact, there are two separate ensembles of thirteen actors that alternate on performance evenings. The ensemble brings to life the streets of London, the many dreamy spirit journeys, and functions as human props and scenic backgrounds as they pose, bustle, sing and cavort across a bare stage in an ever changing panorama that frames the dramatic action.

The Portland Stage Christmas Carol is directed, designed and adapted by Artistic Director Anita Stewart. Smartly designed special effects accompany the appearance of the many ghosts, phantasms and spirits that haunt the proceedings.

At the center of these clever escapades is the fabulous magical bed of Scrooge. It spins, rolls, breaks apart, rises from the floor and expands in cascades of white sheets that cover the stage in mystical inventiveness.

With the appearance of the final dreaded ghost, the bed levitates high in the air from which the cowering Scrooge surveys his dismal fate. The silent, black veiled figure of the future walks mysteriously around and under his bed, lifting the shroud of things destined to come. It is a haunting stage vision, very effectively conceived.

All is dramatically and deftly lit by lighting designer Bryan Winn, utilizing projections and light sources hidden in the stage floor. At several high points of the journey, a stage-wide chandelier of tiny, amber lights descends from the rafters in an enchanting evocation of illumination.

All three of the ghostly spirit guides ”“ Christmas Past, Present and Future ”“ are all skillfully played by the same actress, Caley Milliken. At first she is ethereal, then colorfully abundant and effusive, then chillingly somnambulant.

The sonorous baritone of veteran actor Daniel Noel echoes throughout the proceedings as Narrator, The Ghost of Marley, the kindly Fezziwig and numerous other roles. He shines throughout.

It’s a Dickens of a tale, a grand holiday tradition, and one terrific story, inventively told.

“A Christmas Carol” continues through Dec. 24 with performances Thursday through Friday at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at noon and 5 p.m. Additional shows during Christmas week include: Monday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m., Tuesday Dec. 23 at 2 and 7 p.m., and Wednesday, Dec. 24 at noon.

For tickets and more information, call the Portland Stage Box Office at 774-0465. Tickets are $15 for children, $41 for seniors and $45 for adults.

— Gregory Reynolds Morell is director of the Antic Arts Center and is a writer and producer. Visit www.gregmorell.com.



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