BRATTLEBORO — You might call Vermont Theatre Company's A Christmas Carol a holiday tradition that keeps on changing.
“What is Christmas if not a series of traditions that are both familiar and new every year?” asks James Gelter, director and (with his wife Jessica) co-adaptor of this annual theatrical presentation in Brattleboro.
“I can't imagine a holiday season that did not include A Christmas Carol. There is not one year in which I didn't view or perform in a production of the story. In fact, A Christmas Carol was the first play I was ever in, at the age of six.”
Already something of a theatrical ham even then, Gelter had his sights on playing Tiny Tim. But it was not to be.
“I had a speech impediment at the time, and our director did not want to have his Tiny Tim saying “God bleth us, every one,” he explains.
On December 13, 14, 15, and 16 at Brattleboro Union High School, Vermont Theatre Company presents A Christmas Carol, based on the novella by Charles Dickens.
This is the fifth season that VTC has put on this work, and while the show has become something of a familiar signpost in Windham County during December, James and Jessica Gelter's adaptation changes from year to year, in small and sometimes even large ways.
“For four years local audiences have been thrilled by this production of one of the modern world's most beloved stories,” Gelter writes in a press release. “The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a lonely miser whose life is forever changed when visited by spirits of Christmases past, present, and yet to come, still speaks to us with the same import it did when first published 175 years ago.”
But the Gelters have found that the way to present the story can vary depending on such things as switching venues, changes in the cast, and new thematic concerns.
This year's production is directed by James Gelter and produced by Justin Fetterman, with Shannon Ward as assistant director, Jonathan Kinnersley as musical director, Bruce Holloway as stage manager.
Geof Dolman will play Scrooge, leading a stellar cast that includes Tony Grobe as Jacob Marley, Zoe Peterson as Past, Veda Crewe as Present, Jesse Tidd as Bob Cratchit, Andrew Marchev as Fred, as well as Jessica Gelter, Katy Peterson, Dylan Gallagher, Jonathan Kinnersley, Michael Reardon, Krista Coughlin-Galbraith, Robert Wellington, Fairen Stark and Jenny Holan, Evelyn Gelter, Lila Tadlock, Jaime Garvey, Gavin Holloway, Payton Looman, Jackson Grobe, Maddy Sprague, and Henry Grobe.
Gelter is first to acknowledge that this year's A Christmas Carol at the BUHS auditorium presents challenges and opportunities productions haven't had in the past.
“VTC does not have a permanent location, and we make a point of giving our business to many different locations,” Gelter explains. “In the case of A Christmas Carol, we have in past years performed the show at Hooker-Dunham Theater, New England Youth Theatre, and last year at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Each production reflected the space we were in.”
For instance, the performance space last year at BMAC was restricted and there were minimal opportunities for theatrical special effects.
“But rather than considering this as a liability, my wife Jessica, who directed last year's production, realized BMAC was in a converted train station and re-conceived the show as if Victorian actors stuck in a train station were putting on a production of Dickens' classic,” Gelter says. “The show was presented with large strokes in a vaudevillian tradition.”
While BUHS may be a more traditional venue, here VTC has more theatrical resources at its fingertips. “This year, we have a large stage and more special effects to use, such as a fog and ice machine,” Gelter says.
In the production at BMAC, A Christmas Carol necessarily had a small cast.
“This year the cast includes over 25 actors, which makes it possibly the largest Carol we have ever staged,” Gelter says. “But the auditorium here is very large, so we will be giving fewer performances than in other years, hoping to fill as many seats as we can.”
Gelter contends that the focus of this year's A Christmas Carol will be on “what actually happened” during the evening when the ghosts visited Scrooge.
“What makes A Christmas Carol so cool is that it is accessible to everyone,” Gelter says. “Although it takes place at Christmas, Dickens' story is not religious. Rather it is magical. Where and why the spirits came is never explained.
“Scrooge asks himself the next day, 'Did that really happen?' In accordance with that idea, I have decided this year to present a very dreamlike presentation of the story, less bound by literal locations than suggestions. Visually like in a dream, we are highlighting specific details rather than an overall realism.”
The cast changes from year to year, and that has a major impact on each production of A Christmas Carol.
“What everyone most wants to know each year is who's going to play Scrooge,” admits Gelter. “I once thought there was only one way to play this character, but I have been proven wrong. We have had four different actors playing Scrooge over the years, and each brought something unique to his portrayal.
“This year our Scrooge is Geof Dolman, whose performance I can honestly say is remarkable. This is only the second time he has been in a staged play. We discovered him during the Forest of Mystery productions Jess and I do each fall in the woods at the Bonnyvale Nature Center.
“Last year, an actor in the cast dropped out and someone recommended Dolman. He had never acted before yet proved to be a natural. This past summer, he was in his first stage production (VTC's The Tempest in Living Memorial Park), and he was fantastic.
“But that was a small part compared to the one in A Christmas Carol. I would never have thought a newcomer could ever play such a demanding role as Scrooge, which is 50 percent of the play. But Geof has turned out to be great in the part.”
A special facet of VTC's A Christmas Carol is that it always includes music. But how it is used also changes from year to year.
“The music in A Christmas Carol is always period appropriate,” Gelter says. “At first, we only included songs that were written at the time of Dickens' story. But later we thought it fine to also add older songs that would be sung during that time.”
In some past productions, the songs were sung as part of the play by its characters. However, this year the songs will be sung by an extraneous group of singers who act like a Greek Chorus commenting on the action.
“Half the cast doubles as singers,” Gelter says. “Most music will be sung a cappella, but our music director Jonathan Kinnersley is a fiddle player who will add to the festivities.”
Although Kinnersley may be music director here for the first time, he has been in VTC's A Christmas Carol in past years.
“On the other hand, two former music directors are now actors in this production,” says Gelter. “A former Scrooge is now our stage manager. My assistant director Shannon Ward has been in the show three times. I like these changes. As a theater company, it's fun switching people around.”