By Jenny Neyman
For the most part, holidays are celebrated through tradition. But nothing can stay the same forever.
Twinkling lights updated to LED bulbs. Family connections kept up through eCards and video calls. Turkey dinner made with maybe a little trans fat, but no less love.
This month Triumvirate Theatre serves up two helpings of traditional shows with a dash of newness for first-time audiences.
Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” will be performed one more weekend, as dinner theater Dec. 19 and 20 and just the show Dec. 18. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” opens this weekend, Dec. 12 and 13, and will be performed again Dec. 26 and 27. Both are staged at Triumvirate North, five miles north of Kenai on the Kenai Spur Highway.
Both were chosen for their nostalgia factor.
“We’ve done ‘A Christmas Carol’ several times, but I’ve always wanted to do it in a bigger way, and our new theater provided the opportunity to do that,” said Joe Rizzo, who directs the play. “So ghosts could appear magically, and we could have more room to build a more impressive set — that type of thing.”
Dickens’ story, of businessman Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation into a more generous person through visitations by his old business partner, Jacob Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, was itself a mix of old and new at the time it was published, in 1843. Not only were Christmas trees and greeting cards new conventions, but the happy ending of Scrooge’s redemption helped restore some festivity and merriment to a season that had been marked by Victorian-era somberness. Yet the point of the tale — encouraging kindness and helping those less fortunate — was a reminder then as it still is now.
“I like the fact that the message, even though it was written over 150 years ago, is something that we still have around us today,” Rizzo said. “When Scrooge says, ‘Are there no prisons, and union workhouses,’ where people can go who are poor and destitute? We still hear those same types of things today — aren’t there food stamps, don’t my taxes go to pay for housing, why should I give to charity at this point? So I think the message is still very relevant, which is that everyone is part of the human race and we all have to help each other out.”
And yet, the play transforms a bit every time it’s performed.
“I think there’s always a different interpretation every time I’ve done this play. Even if I use the same script, actors bring a different interpretation to it,” he said.
Allen Auxier plays Scrooge. It’s his first time performing that role, though he’s acted in and directed the show before.
“You always have the opportunity to make the role your own. No two actors would ever play the character exactly the same,” Auxier said. “In addition, every audience is different and they come to it with different expectations, memories, taste, wants, needs, etc., etc. So all of that goes into the mix and soup of community theater, and all of the different talent that is on the stage and in the tech booth and everybody working together and pulling this off. It’s always a lot of fun.”
His rendition of the classic character is to take Scrooge from one extreme to the other.
“He goes through just all kinds of emotions. He goes from being a stingy old guy to a wonderful, caring person and all of the stages in between. It’s just a great character to play. I’m coming from the absolute extreme end of mean, stingy, obnoxious, horrible — all the way up to angel walking on water. He has a complete transition — voice, posture, attitude, everything,” Auxier said. “He’s a wonderful character, a villain redeemed sort of thing. It’s a lot of fun.”
The character of Marley is played by AJ Seims, who has played Scrooge in a previous Triumvirate version of “A Christmas Carol.” Rizzo said that it’s been interesting to see the different takes the two have had on their characters.
“Scrooge played by Allen is more of someone who is really just simply stingy and is kind of fearful someone’s always going to be taking advantage of him. AJ played Scrooge as more of hard-boiled businessman who is always in control, until the ghosts come and then he starts to turn and think, ‘Well, maybe there are other forces more important than I am,’” Rizzo said. “And when AJ plays Marley he brings that same kind of hard-boiled businessman to Marley. Some people interpret him like someone who is in anguish, which the script and the text of the book lend itself to, but what was Marley like in life? That’s where an actor playing that part decides how they’re going to be portrayed.”
The look of the show is in keeping with tradition — the substantial robes and ornate patterns of the Victorian period, but with some updates. The ghosts, for instance, levitate up onto the stage from below, courtesy of a lift from Hanna Construction.
“I like that Joe Rizzo was persistent enough to get his ghost-launching machine and test it out and make sure it worked and use it. I was very skeptical of that but I’m glad to see it worked well,” Auxier said. “That’s the magic of theater.”
The show is presented as dinner theater at 6 p.m. Dec. 19 and 20, with dinner of pork marsala, scalloped potatoes, winter vegetables and bread pudding with plum sauce provided by the Blue Grouse. It’s just the show at 7 p.m. Dec. 18. Tickets ($39 for dinner theater and $15 for just the show) are available online at http://www.triumviratetheatre.org.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is performed by Triumvirate’s youth Class Act troupe, directed by Kate Schwarzer and Delana Duncan.
“I’ve always wanted to do Charlie Brown,” Rizzo said. “As soon as I found the rights were available I said, ‘I would like us to do that show.’ I think it’s from a young, 10-year-old Joe Rizzo watching the Peanuts gang having Thanksgiving dinner and two weeks later seeing the great story of Charlie Brown being put in charge trying to make Christmas work. It’s nostalgic for me and I suspect it’s nostalgic for every adult that’s going to come to this show.”
“I’m a huge fan of everything Charlie Brown,” said Schwarzer, who remembers her role as Lucy in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” as one of her favorite shows. “So it was a no-brainer to say yes. It’s the tradition, I grew up watching it, I know a lot of people did. It’s got some really sweet little vignettes of what Christmas is really all about. It covers the spirit of the season and the Biblical aspect of it, with Linus’ speech, but also the community spirit that goes into it when all the kids get together and fix the Christmas tree and make Charlie Brown feel better. It’s really cool to see it brought to life by these kids and seeing them bring their own personalities into their characters while still keeping it classic Charlie Brown.”
Triumvirate staged a preview of the show at Soldotna’s tree-lighting ceremony Saturday. Rizzo said that it was fun to see an audience of kids, who likely are somewhat new to the Peanuts gang these days, fall in love with them just like their parents before them.
“At least 200 people were there and the first six rows were all little kids, and they were in rapt attention,” he said. “They were really interested in the show and they seemed to really be enjoying it. It was pretty obvious they were being very entertained.”
As with “A Christmas Carol,” the point of the story is relevant today, Rizzo said, even though the cartoon version of the show debuted in 1965.
“The message that Christmas is too commercial, that we don’t pay attention to the real meaning of Christmas, is pretty evident in that show. I think that message isn’t dated. And these characters were engaging enough to last 50 years in a comic strip,” he said.
That’s an idea kids can grasp, even if they’ve never before met Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang.
“I think it’s the spirit, innocence and the attitude of it,” Schwarzer said. “Kids see Christmas is about giving and it’s about loving your friends and family, and even though Charlie Brown goes through some rough patches, his friends get him through it. I think kids see that and they see themselves in it. It’s so simple and so sweet that I think it’s still universal.”
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is performed at 7 p.m. Fridays, Dec. 12 and 26, and 3 p.m. Saturdays, Dec. 13 and 27. Tickets are $5 for kids 12 and under and $15 for adults, available online at www.triumviratetheatre.org, and at the door.
“I think that a lot of people are looking for things to do together at Christmastime,” Rizzo said. “All the hustle and bustle of going out and shopping and all those things that we all have to do, I think theater provides a nice opportunity to slow down and stop long enough to spend time together, which is really the greatest gift of all.”