Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek

was prepared for the December 19, 2001 edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Making `Christmas Carol’ Magic

Do you remember when the existence of magic was an

absolute fact? When honest-to-goodness miracles, like catching sight

of the summer’s first lightning bug, waking up to a foggy morning,

or contemplating the existence of the odd little people living inside

the TV screen, were occasions of deep mystery and wonder?

To children, magic happens all the time. It is as common as your

mother’s

voice calling you for dinner or your father’s wingtips heading up

the stairs.

One of the casualties of acquiring a formal education is that this

sense of wonder tends to get tamped down by the practicalities of

adult logic. The need to get good grades, acquire status, and buy

expensive toys wrenches control of much of the space formally reserved

for good old-fashioned enchantment.

But once in a while it is still possible for even the most callous

adult to reexperience a bit of the old childhood magic. McCarter

Theater’s

current production of Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol,"

now on stage through Sunday, December 30, provides just that

opportunity.

It is a fresh but faithful retelling of the old story, elegantly

visual,

fast paced, well-acted, and chock full of magic — you can count

a flying Scrooge, fairies popping out of nowhere, and ghosts

disappearing

into the woodwork.

That all this magic should come due to the efforts of what is arguably

the hardest working stage crew in any area theater gives credence

to the finger waving of teachers from Thomas Jefferson Elementary

to Hogwarts Academy: Sure, magic is possible, but it takes a lot of

hard work.

I had the opportunity to experience the nuts and bolts of magic-making

first hand, as Stephen Howe, McCarter’s stage supervisor, invited

me backstage during an actual performance. There I learned about the

delicate mix of elbow grease, high-tech computer technology, and

old-fashioned

fortitude that it takes to make the stage magic of "A Christmas

Carol" a reality.

"Most theater people wouldn’t consider themselves military

types,"

says Howe. "But what we do backstage to keep the show running

smoothly takes the same dependability, willingness to act on faith,

and capacity to take orders that is required in the military."

It’s no secret the McCarter’s "Christmas Carol" has become

a Princeton tradition. It began with artistic director Nagle Jackson

who introduced it to Princeton audiences in 1980, and the holiday

show has continued to evolve over more than 20 years. This year is

only the second year out for the latest production. Adapted by David

Thompson and directed by Michael Unger, it features scenery by

legendary

designer Ming Cho Lee, costumes by Jess Goldstein, lighting by Stephen

Strawbridge, and music by Michael Starobin.

A good indication of the overall quality of this production is the

way that magical effects are comfortably integrated into the show,

never overpowering it. Returning in the role of Scrooge is John

Christopher

Jones in an excellent performance that mixes just the right dose of

"bah humbug" with a hardy self-effacing humor. The

accompanying

cast is equally lively, particularly Harriett D. Foy, new in the role

of the ghost of Christmas Present, and Michael Mandell as old Mr.

Fezziwig. Mark Niebuhr is back as Scrooge’s former business partner,

Jacob Marley, and Simon Brooking plays Bob Cratchit. Each and every

one of the show’s 12 child actors gives a lively performance, adding

a great deal to the quality of the evening.

Lee’s multiple set design is, before all else,

beautiful.

Utilizing a palette of rich London grays and slightly exaggerated

forms, Lee creates a world evocative of both the repressive realities

of life for England’s working poor of the 1840s with the breezy air

of enchantment that is so central to the story.

Two large movable sets dominate the stage. The interior of Scrooge

and Marley’s place of business is a two-story, three-ton office on

wheels, complete with a full-size staircase, bookshelves, a wooden

desk with a tiny candle perched on top, and a small metal stove for

heat. "It’s great, but it’s damaging the floor," says Howe.

"It’s made of 6,500 pounds of steel, and most of that weight is

on the second level, so it’s top heavy. Next year we’re probably going

to have to redo it."

Scrooge’s bedroom, built at a jaunty, off-kilter angle, is dominated

by a huge canopy bed complete with bed curtains and a larger-than-life

armchair. Weighing in at a mere 2,800 pounds, this also has a small

staircase that leads up to a doorway, as well as a big yellow wall

clock, a throw rug, and a wooden chest at the foot of the bed.

Howe introduces me to Dave Cain, a member of the crew. "I’m in

charge of magic in the bedroom," Cain announces with a chuckle.

Cain is the man behind every magical effect in Scrooge’s bedroom.

This includes operating the clock, blowing nitrogen out of a hose

that suddenly shoots Scrooge’s nightcap up out of his wooden clothes

chest ("we use nitrogen rather than air," says Cain, "it

provides more oomph"), as well as assisting in the mysterious

appearance and disappearance of Marley’s ghost. Other duties include

helping in the glitter clean-up, and playing "rock, paper,

scissors"

with the three Fairies of Christmas Past in between scenes.

In a show dependent on visual effects, it is important for the crew

to make certain every detail is taken care of, and sometimes, it is

best to utilize high-tech equipment for the smallest embellishment.

"The flickering candle on Bob Cratchit’s desk is really controlled

by a small computer chip," says Howe. "When I first started

working on these shows we always used real candles with real flames,

but this way is so much better. What if an actor forgets to blow it

out? Besides, I think it looks very real."

Yet there are also times when the low-tech solution is preferred.

Jim Sergeant pushes a prop piano onstage using an old fashioned

push-stick

and Cain creates a convincingly portentous rapping at Scrooge’s

bedroom

door by simply tapping a stick onto the floor. "Sometimes we tend

to get too computer conscious," says Howe. "It’s good to

remember

that sometimes it’s better to do things by hand."

The vision of Scrooge flying through the air is a great crowd pleaser,

and it is made authentic by a series of harnesses and strings provided

by Flying By Foy, the preeminent theatrical special effects company

based in Las Vegas that has been making actors fly ever since the

days of Mary Martin’s "Peter Pan" of the 1950s.

"They’re very thorough," says Howe. "Early on, they came

in and took all of John Christopher Jones’ measurements," says

Howe. "Then they come back and try it out. If it’s uncomfortable

for him, they redo it. Finally they spent two whole days teaching

him how to fly. He learned that if he sticks his arms out a certain

way, he’s going to go over, or if he turns another way he’s going

to spin."

Matt Colt operates the mechanism that keeps Scrooge aloft. "It’s

a tricky business, and timing is crucial," says Howe. "Matt

does it completely by sight. He has to have a good eye, watching the

actor very carefully. When Scrooge hops up, Matt has to make sure

he hits it just right so that Scrooge just keeps on going higher."

To many people, the Ghost of Christmas Future is the highlight of

the show, adding that touch of horror-movie spookiness to the holiday

story. The McCarter production is no exception, having developed a

12-foot-tall mechanical puppet, swathed in lightweight fabric, that

is operated by Jim Augustine and Piper Goodeve. The figure is so wide

it must shimmy its way through the backstage area in order to make

its stage entrance.

"Last year it required three people to operate it," says Laura

Fasano. "But this year we were able to refine it a bit, so now

it only takes two." As she says this, the giant puppet steps in

front of me and ominously extends a giant bony finger my way, nearly

touching my nose. "Both Jim and Piper are natural puppeteers,"

says Howe. "They could make the ghost snap its fingers and gyrate

to disco music if they wanted to. It’s pretty amazing."

Gabe Shackney works in what is called "the netherworld,"

operating

the trap doors from beneath the stage from which a number of key

entrances

and exits are made.

"I have to catch Scrooge at the end of the first act and make

sure he hits the mat just right," says Shackney. "The first

lesson the actor learns is to make sure you keep your mouth closed

because otherwise it’s easy to bite your lip or tongue." Shackney

is also the crew member who is in charge of gluing the flash-paper

to Scrooge’s tombstone. At the precise moment he hears his cue,

Shackney

sends the tombstone up to stage level and ignites it.

During the month-long run of the show, the crew will use approximately

$500 worth of flash paper, as well as $500 to $600 worth of dry ice

to create the fog effects, and $1,000 worth of glitter.

"We use the most expensive glitter you can buy," says Howe.

"We have to — the cheaper glitter contains a kind of metal

dust that can get into the eyes and damage the cornea."

During the week of technical rehearsals before the show opens, the

crew may work as many as 90 hours. The process of setting light

levels,

devising cue sheets, and figuring out who should do which job and

when, is a delicate process that is open to constant revision.

"We’re

always trying to figure out the best way to make things work,"

says Howe. "Sure it takes a lot of time, but it’s all worth it.

Everything we do is for the audience."

As "A Christmas Carol" draws to a close, the actors go through

their curtain calls, standing in the light as waves of applause wash

over them. At the same time Howe stands in the wings, watching and

smiling, holding Tiny Tim’s leg brace. "You have to be a special

kind of person to do this sort of work," he says. "You have

to be motivated and well educated, because we work with some pretty

high-tech equipment back here. Yet you also have to be humble enough

to mop the floor after the show."

As actors rush past on their way to their dressing rooms, the crew

is already busy fetching those mops and setting up for the next show.

"Sure, everyone on this crew could be working other jobs that

pay more money," says Howe. "But it’s true what they say about

theater — there’s something about it that just gets into your

blood."

— Jack Florek

A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Www.mccarter.org. $29 to $47. Through Sunday,

December 30.

McCarter is collecting non-perishable food items for the needy and

new, unwrapped toys to donate to Kids-For-Kids of New Jersey, a

teen-run

non-profit that provides community services for abused, impoverished,

emotionally disturbed, disabled, and terminally ill children. The

organization was founded in 1995 by Carly Rothman, now a Princeton

High School senior. Her sister Daryl is in the cast of "A

Christmas

Carol."


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