Countdown to ACT’s `Carol’

James Carpenter (center) is Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theater’s annual production of A Christmas Carol is in full swing in downtown San Francisco. Rather than reviewing this holiday perennial, let’s just hit some of the major points. Herewith, in descending order, some reasons to see the show. (To read the complete list, visit my theater page here.)

10. Before and after the show you get to wander around the festive Union Square area, which, despite the general mood of the nation, is rich with decoration and holiday cheer. The ice rink in Union Square, just under the enormous, beautifully decorated tree, is especially nice.

9. The special effects, especially where the ghosts are concerned, are marvelous. The first appearance by Jacob Marley’s ghost is a doozy, and the giant Ghost of Christmas Future is creepy in all the right ways (young audience members should probably be at least 4 years old to see this show).

8. During the Fezziwig’s ball, choreographer Val Caniparoli goes to town with the joyous dancing. His moves for the children are especially charming.

7. Speaking of children, the youngest members of the cast are wonderful. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Noah Pawl Silverman St. John is a notable Boy Scrooge, and Lauren Safier is a whirlwind of affection as his sister, Little Fan.

6. The not-so-enjoyable aspects of the production (the sketchy set, the wan music) are trumped by the better aspects of the show and by the story itself. That Charles Dickens knew a thing or two about entertaining while moralizing.

5. Nicholas Pelczar adds a welcome jolt of real holiday feeling as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. His unfurling of a red scarf as a gift for old Ebenezer is one of the show’s simplest yet most enduring images.

4. The costumes by Beaver Bauer are gorgeous and funny (see No. 3). The colors, textures and patterns swirl around the stage like a confectioner’s dream.

3. The dancing Spanish Onions (Isabella Ateshian and Ella Ruth Francis), Turkish Figs (Rachel Share-Sapolsky and Kira Yaffe) and French Plums (Megan Apple and Megumi Nakamura) bring a whole lot of charm to the Ghost of Christmas Present’s dissertation on abundance.

2. Some great Bay Area actors sink their considerable chops into delicious supporting roles. Ken Ruta as the ghost of Jacob Marley is a delight, as is Sharon Lockwood as Scrooge’s char woman, Mrs. Dilber, and as the festive Mrs. Fezziwig. Jarion Monroe, in a curly red wig, is adorable as Mr. Fezziwig, and Cindy Goldfield and Stephen Barker Turner are warm and fuzzy as the Cratchits, impoverished only in economic terms.

1. James Carpenter’s performance as Scrooge is reason enough to see this production. He’s a brilliant actor and breathes life into this chestnut of a character. The production surrounding him isn’t always up to his level, but he lifts the entire experience to an appropriately Dickensian level.
You can also read my review of ACT’s A Christmas Carol in the San Francisco Chronicle here.


A Christmas Carol continues through Dec. 27 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $18-$102. Call 415-479-2ACT or visit

Photo at right: Ken Ruta is the Ghost of Jacob Marley in ACT’s A Christmas Carol. Photo by Kevin Berne

Humbug! Here we come a-`Carol’-ing

James Carpenter plays Ebenezer Scrooge “dead seriously.”

“It’s just like when you play farce,” Carpenter explains. “You don’t play it funny. You have to invest as fully as you can.”

Carpenter, 56, one of the Bay Area’s most revered actors, is now in his third year as Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s re-tooled production of A Christmas Carol, and he’s as passionate as ever about the role and the production.

“I’m always trying to find something new and different,” he says. “It’s the only way a piece of theater can stay a live. Without discovering something new, it will die – and deservedly so.”

No chance of Carpenter’s Scrooge (seen at right, photo by Ryan Montgomery) withering and fading. Working alongside ACT’s MFA students and the novice actors in the Young Conservatory, Carpenter is alive to the challenge of bringing Dickens’ anti-hero to the fullest life possible and making his redemption after a night of ghostly visitation a moving experience for all.

“I’m not a religious man,” Carpenter says, “but I’m a spiritual man. If we are to evolve as a species, spiritual evolution is the direction.”

Scrooge exemplifies that evolution, which may be one reason the Dickens tale remains so popular 165 years after it was written.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the Bay Area’s productions of A Christmas Carol.

  • American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol (starring James Carpenter as Scrooge) opens today (Thursday, Dec. 4) and continues through Dec. 27 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $14-$102. Call 415-749-2228 or visit
  • Center Repertory Company’s A Christmas Carol returns for an 11th year with Jack Powell as Scrooge and runs Dec. 11-21 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $41. Call 925-943-7469 or visit
  • Moonlight Entertainment’s A Christmas Carol returns for a 23rd year and continues through Sunday, Dec. 7 at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland. Tickets are $12-$15. Call 877-666-5448 or visit
  • Notre Dame de Namur University’s long-running musical version of A Christmas Carol, also called “The Gift” because it’s free (except for opening night) to the public, runs Dec. 5 through 13 on the NDNU campus in Belmont. Opening-night tickets are $20-$40. Call 650-508-3456 or e-mail
  • Ron Severdia plays all the parts in his one-man A Christmas Carol under the direction of Julian Lopez-Morillas. Ross Valley Players, along with Severdia’s Humbug Theatre, presents this award-winning solo performance Dec. 11 through 24 at The Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, 30 Sir Francis Drake, Ross. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 415-456-9555 or visit
  • Northside Theatre Company’s A Christmas Carol, adapted and directed by Richard T. Orlando runs Dec. 10 through 24 at 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$20. Call 408-288-7820 or visit
  • Theater moments: Reflections on 2007

    I’ve already offered up my Top 10 list of 2007’s best Bay Area theater (see it here).

    That’s all well and good, but there was way too much good stuff in 2007 to contain in a polite numbered list. What follows, in no apparent order, are some of the year’s most distinctive theater moments (mostly good, some not so much).

    The shows in the Top 10 were really great shows, but so were these. This is my honorable mention roster:

    American Suicide, Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays
    Pillowman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
    The Birthday Party, Aurora Theatre Company
    Pleasure & Pain, Magic Theatre’s Hot House ’07
    After the War, American Conservatory Theater
    Heartbreak House, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
    Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle and The Marsh
    Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway by the Bay
    Des Moines, Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts
    Richard III, California Shakespeare Theater

    Favorite scene: Didn’t even have to think twice about this one. The dinner scene in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Director Les Waters, working from Adele Edling Shank’s script, fashioned a multilayered scene that would have made Woolf herself proud. A boisterous family dinner, warmly illuminated by candles, allows us into the head of each of the diners without ever losing track of the dinner conversation. Extraordinary and beautiful — and vocally choreographed like a piece of complex music.

    Greatest guilty pleasure: Legally Blonde, The Musical, had its pre-Broadway run early in 2007 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, and though it had its problems, it was a heck of a lot of fun. The best number was the lengthy “What You Want” in which sorority gal Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) decides to apply to Harvard. In true musical fashion, the number sweeps through time and space, coursing through months of effort and from Southern California to the hallowed halls of Harvard. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography incorporates a frat party, the Harvard selection committee and a marching band.

    Favorite image:The green girl in Berkeley Rep’s The Pillowman.

    Favorite couple: Francis Jue as Mr. Oji and Delia MacDougall as Olga Mikhoels in Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War at ACT. The sweetest romance was also the most surprising: a shy Japanese man and a recent Russian immigrant, neither of whom speaks much English.

    Speaking of MacDougall: It was a good year for the actress (seen at right with the fur and tiara), who died memorably in Cal Shakes’ King Lear and ended 2007 with a superb, hip-swiveling, lip-pursing performance in Sex by Mae West at the Aurora.

    Favorite tryout: Joan Rivers is more than a red carpet personality and an experiment in plastic surgery. An avowed theater lover, Rivers got down to some serious (and seriously funny) business in The Joan Rivers Theatre Project at the Magic. She combined stand-up with drama as she told an autobiographical tale of growing old in show business. The play was far from perfect, but she gets an A for effort.

    Best ensemble: Behind every good show is a good ensemble, in front of and behind the scenes. But the one that comes to mind that, together, elevated the play was the fine crew in TheatreWorks’ Theophilus North (left) directed by Leslie Martinson.

    Biggest disappointments: There were a few of them. I adore Kiki and Herb (Justin Bond and Kenny Melman), but their summer gig at ACT was in desperate need of a director. Berkeley Rep hosted Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, and while it was good, it didn’t reach anything approaching the heights of David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby. I complained about this in the review, and I’ll complain about it again: In ACT’s The Rainmaker, when the rain falls at the end, the actors should get wet. That’s the whole point of the play. In this version, the rain fell from above, but the actors were behind it and only pretended — acted if you will — the wetness. Lame.

    Most gratuitous nudity: Actors bare all emotionally _ it’s what they do. But this year saw some unnecessary flesh, most notably in ‘Bot at the Magic, Private Jokes, Public Places at the Aurora and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter Night. Costumes are a good thing.

    Favorite quote of the year: It was uttered by the food critic Anton Ego (and written by Brad Bird) in the brilliant Pixar/Disney movie Ratatouille. As a critic (or what’s left of one), the words really hit home. And they’re true.

    Here’s a taste: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

    Happy New Year. May your stages in 2008 be full of the discovery of the new.

    Review: Charles Dickens’ `Oliver Twist’

    Opened May 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre

    Berkeley Rep gives Dickens a dark Twist
    Three stars Grim ‘n’ grand

    We’re told early on in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a bracing stage adaptation of the classic novel, that what we’re about to see is complete fiction. The story concerns “hope flourishing when all hope has passed,” and that means, according to Dickens, that it couldn’t possibly be true.

    Ah, the sting of Dickens.

    In Twist, Dickens is at his rabble-rousing, hyperbolic best. In telling the story of an impossibly good-hearted 10-year-old orphan who suffers every imaginable cruelty, he gave the so-called civilized world a big flat-handed smack to the face.

    Everything in Oliver Twist is so dark, so mean and so biting, it’s funny – by design. For all the grimness, there’s abundant humor in Dickens’ blistering scolding. If you are on of the “haves’’ who has ever ignored – or worse – oppressed the “have nots,’’ Dickens considers you even worse than the murderers, pickpockets and corrupt lawmen who populate his story.

    The popular 1963 musical Oliver! took the story at face value and gave us a cartoonish, sentimental tale with hummable songs and step-lively dancing.

    British director Neil Bartlett wants to retrieve Dickens’ satiric edge from the clutches of “Consider Yourself’’ and “Oom-Pah-Pah.’’

    He does so quite effectively in Oliver Twist, a London hit in 2004 that is now seeing its first American tour (with an American cast) in association with American Repertory Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

    The Twist now at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre is a spin on Victorian melodrama complete with footlights, bare-bones theatricality and overblown acting that wouldn’t be out of place in a silent film.

    Bartlett isn’t much interested in Dickens’ comic sensibility with its broadly drawn buffoons like Mr. Bumble (Remo Airaldi), whose stage time is minimal, as is that of his shrewish wife and co-conspirator (Karen MacDonald). No, Bartlett seems much more interested in Dickens’ menace.

    It’s there in the ominous shadows of Scott Zielinski’s lighting design. It’s there in the boxy set by Rae Smith, where it looks like a printer’s dark, inky toner cartridge exploded in the corner. Smith, who also designed the tattered costumes, reduces a full-color world to black, gray and beige with only a hint of color here and there.

    Though this is not a musical (and, by the way, not for young children), there is music. Composer Gerard McBurney has the ensemble a cappella chant-singing chunks of Dickens’ dialogue, and occasionally, he creeps us out with actors playing a screechy violin, a disconcerting hurdy-gurdy and a serpent-shaped horn that blows no good.

    As we follow Oliver from his dismal birth to the defining events of his 10th year, we find a world almost devoid of compassion. Shortly after asking for more gruel at the work house, Oliver is pushed into service as an undertaker’s lackey. Then he wends his way – on bloody feet no less – to London, where he falls in with a terrible crew of pickpockets and thieves.

    The ring leader is Fagin (Ned Eisenberg, above left), whose affection for his lost boys is unnerving to say the least. Chief thief is Artful Dodger (a spry Carson Elrod, who also serves as narrator), and chief bad guy is Bill Sykes (an imposing Gregory Derelian, above right).

    Oliver is played by Michael Wartella in shades of wide-eyed misery, and the fact that he’s not a child, though perfectly in keeping with the exaggerated theatricality of the production, somehow robs the story of some internal light.

    In the realm of Dickens’ thick darkness, director Bartlett does well. But he seems leery of Dickens’ equally powerful affection for well-earned sentiment, he backs off.

    The good-hearted prostitute Nancy (Jennifer Ikeda complete with visible bruises on her neck and arms) is the best example of nearly extinguished goodness, but the supposedly good folks (Will LeBow as Mr. Brownlow and Elizabeth Jasicki as Rose Brownlow) hardly get a chance to be anything more than meddling rich people who take an interest in Oliver’s welfare.

    Amid all the inventive direction and diverting theatrics, we hear Dickens loud and clear: There’s goodness in the world, and most of us are squelching or ignoring it. But we don’t get the full-heart experience that Dickens seemed to manage so well. Sure life is bad and we give in to our base natures, but there’s always hope. Even Dickens never really believed that was entirely fiction.

    For information about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist visit

    New twist on `Oliver’

    Get all that merry singing and dancing out of your head.

    A new theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist arrives at Berkeley Repertory Theatre this weekend, and it’s nothing like the 1963 musical Oliver!

    Director Neil Bartlett originally created Oliver Twist for the Lyric Hammersmith in London, and it became a huge hit.

    Wrote the London Independent: “Are you one of those people who can’t bear the fake Cockney jauntiness of Oliver!? If so, help is at hand…Neil Bartlett’s Oliver Twist is richly satisfying. Unlike its hero, you aren’t left asking for more.”

    With a new American cast, the show has hopped the pond, as they say, and is making the rounds of American Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts, Theatre for a New Audience in New York, and now Berkeley Rep, where it plays in the Roda Theatre.

    As a kid in the early ’60s, actor Ned Eisenberg, who plays Fagin, the mercenary leader of the child pickpocket crew, remembers the first show he ever saw: Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!

    “Neil’s show isn’t anything like that,” Eisenberg says from his New York apartment, where his 4-year-old son can be heard in the background competing for attention. “The musical made the story palatable and fun. The Dickens novel, and this version of it, is spooky and scary. Many of these characters do not come to a good end. They certainly don’t go off skipping and singing.”

    Originally published in monthly installments in Bentley’s Miscellany from February 1837 to April 1839, Oliver Twist is a dark and darkly funny novel of social ills ranging from the inhuman conditions of the workhouses to the recruitment (and ruin) of children forced into criminal life.

    Dickens’ satirical voice is present throughout, especially as he deals with a society prone to ignore the plight of its poor, starving underclass.

    “The lighting is garish, the set is grimy and dirty looking with trap doors and secret ways in and out,” says Eisenberg, 50, of Bartlett’s production. “You feel like you’re right there in 1837 in the bowels of London.”

    Though he has never performed in a Dickens stage adaptation _ somehow he escaped the perennial call of A Christmas Carol _ Eisenberg says he’s a Dickens fan _ especially of David Lean’s film adaptations: Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

    “Those films get the world of Dickens right,” Eisenberg says.

    A veteran of both stage (he co-founded the revered Naked Angels Theatre Company in 1987 with Fisher Stevens and last year was in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Awake and Sing ) and of film (he was a semi-regular on “Law & Order” and last year was in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers), Eisenberg says he’s often loathe to commit to a lengthy stage run, especially if it takes him away from his family.

    “But this one was special,” the actor says.

    Bartlett’s style is what you might call hyper-theatrical. A cast of 13 plays more than 50 roles. Only Eisenberg as Fagin and Michael Wartella (a jockey-size 20-year-old) as Oliver stick with a single character. Gerard McBurney contributes music, most of which is a cappella choral singing along with eerie sounds from a violin, a hurdy-gurdy and a serpent (a woodwind horn in the shape of a snake).

    The character of Fagin can be a tricky one. A Jewish man who hoards money earned by wayward children forced into being pickpockets and petty criminals, Fagin — like Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice — was not made for these politically correct times.

    “Neil hasn’t gussied up the role or made a choice to play it safe,” Eisenberg says. “He has allowed me to go to a dangerous place with the role. There’s a scene in the play that hasn’t been seen in other adaptations. It’s from the penultimate chapter in the book, with Fagin in his cell, terrified of the gallows, going stark-raving nuts.”

    As for the anti-Semitic aspect of the character, Eisenberg says there’s been no attempt to reclaim or whitewash Fagin.

    “He’s a real criminal corrupting all these children. He’s creepy,” Eisenberg says. “He’s not presented as a sexual predator with these kids, but in this day and age, there’s an underlying feeling that that could also be part of what’s going on. In terms of the anti-Semitic nature of the character, we don’t dwell on it, but there are some shocking things in there.”

    Clearly, this is not Oliver-lite, and parents should be cautious when bringing children.
    Eisenberg says he wouldn’t recommend the show for children younger than 10.

    “This is a show about people behaving badly at the expense of children,” Eisenberg says. “All the kids in the show are orphans, which is scary enough, but this is a harsh world. People don’t have enough food, and there’s cruelty everywhere. Oliver is sold to a coffin maker, bullied nonstop, and then is taken in by a bunch of thieves and murderers.”

    On a more cheerful note, Oliver Twist marks a return of sorts for Eisenberg, who played the Curran Theatre in San Francisco with the national tour of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers in 1992.

    “I happy to be coming back,” he says. “I fell in love with the Bay Area.”

    Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist continues through June 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45 to $61. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit