WILMINGTON — Usually this time of year, at least one staging of “A Christmas Carol” is going on in Wilmington. While entertainment venues, and thus theater companies, have been thwarted by Covid protocols from doing in-person shows, Big Dawg Productions is finding a way to bring the famed tale of redemption into the homes of theater lovers.
Big Dawg has launched “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” as a radio drama — or as it would be coined in 2020, “an audio presentation” — available to stream through Dec. 22. It’s one of many ways the story has been told and retold since Dickens published the original 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” Tom Mula’s stage version was introduced to Big Dawg’s artistic director Steve Vernon in the early 2000s, thanks to friend and fellow actor Randy Davis.
“He was such a fan of the script that it was hard not to be enthused by it,” Vernon said.
The story takes on Jacob Marley’s point of view. Scrooge’s unscrupulous business partner must free himself from the shackles of hell and overcome his own demons by helping redeem Scrooge on earth.
Big Dawg did its first production of “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at Thalian Hall’s black box theater 20 years ago. The company has continued hosting it on and off ever since, and more consistently over the last few years.
“It’s become a tradition for us,” Vernon said.
When Vernon realized Big Dawg wouldn’t be able to host an in-person holiday show, he decided to turn the theater company’s venue, Cape Fear Playhouse, into a recording studio. $7,400 in grant money from the Landfall Foundation and Arts Council of Wilmington provided the opportunity.
“It was a safer endeavor to do it as a radio piece, as that would not require actors to be so close to one another,” Vernon said in reference to Covid-19 protocols and executive orders in place statewide.
Playing the Record Keeper with mischief and a “wicked sense of humor,” Fracaswell Hyman noted vast differences from a regular theater rehearsal, especially in connecting with his co-stars. “We were all facing in different directions, so the normal way of reacting to each other had to come strictly from the voice,” Hyman explained.
Still, he welcomed the change to be able to perform again, which he hadn’t done since the Wilmington Theater Awards in March.
Playing Jacob Marley for the fifth time, Randy Davis couldn’t depend on his physicality to communicate his performance to an audience. Instead, he said he paid closer attention to the text and really dissected the words.
“It was challenging not to be able to rely on my face and body to convey things as I’ve done in the past,” Davis said.
“Radio-theater is also a bit challenging in terms of learning breath control, so as not to gasp before you speak and respect for the sensitivity of the microphones,” Hyman said.
Sound engineer Scott Davis, who worked on the Big Dawg show years ago as light designer, helped ease the process. The familiarity with each other and the script helped, too, according to Vernon.
“[It] made the unusual circumstances a minor issue,” he said. “If you think you’ll just be hearing actors read from a script, then you are in for a wonderful surprise.”
Vernon designed the sound to make the show immersive. While normally actors, sets and costumes present the story in an easy-to-consume package, with only sounds and voices leading the way, this time around audiences must rely on their imaginations to build the world.
“The play is very richly acted, with music and sound effects added to heighten the experience,” Vernon detailed, “everything from thunderstorms and hellish landscapes, to chains and face slaps.”
Many actors have interpreted Scrooge’s transformation from miserly to compassionate throughout the century. Vernon will be wearing the night cap and gown for the fifth time.
“Who doesn’t enjoy playing the bad guy every now and then?” he asked. “It is fun to play someone despicable, but really only because . . . the redemption arc is very satisfying, both as an actor and as a person.”
Davis’ wife, Vanessa Welch, will be heckling Marley as Bogle the hellish sidekick, a ghost who must make sure Marley follows through on restoring Scrooge’s humanity. Welch has performed Bogle many times before and never bores from this version of the story, which gives more history on the ghosts behind the scenes.
“While [Bogle] is true to folklore and certainly perplexes Jacob Marley on his journey, he also forces Marley to really go to some very vulnerable places, all while adding a dash of humor and sentiment along the way,” Welch explained. “I love that this particular story takes the actors and the audience on a journey that has many relatable human moments — sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying and uncomfortable, and sometimes deeply moving, and it really leaves you satiated and inspired with Christmas spirit.”
“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” is available for $15 per livestream through Dec. 22, 9 p.m.
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