A Christmas Carol
Portland Center Stage
Through Dec 23

Picture if you will, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Audiences have seen the stage show every year, or have been "treated" to countless bastardized television versions (with female Scrooges, funny Scrooges, animated Scroogers, animal Scrooges, child Scrooges) or even the odd faithful production (Patrick Stewart, your phone is ringing). How then to mount yet another production of the classic without boring patrons to tears?

Director Chris Coleman has come up with one solution for Portland Center Stage's end-of-the-year production, and it's a creepy winner: Taking a cue from the real text of Dickens (as adapted by David McCann), Coleman has chosen to cast this Carol as a horror show. From the moment patrons enter, they are greeted by the stark black stage with a prone body (dead? sleeping?) and giant clockwork gears straight out of a German expressionistic film, telling them that this Scrooge story might not be as full of humbug as others they've seen.

Ted Roisum plays Scrooge strongly--and is almost exclusively the only one sporting an English accent--but it isn't his character that brings out the frights. Coleman's staging finds eight cast members as the narrators, each bottom-lit and prowling the stage in constant movement like hungry vampires. The fact that they finish each other's sentences will splinter your focus and disconcert you; all the better to affect minor scene and costume changes, as each of them plays four to five characters in the show.

The addition of narration adds another effect, less unnerving, in that we actually see more of Dickens' story than ever before. It's been years since I read the original, but there were several scenes I couldn't recall at all (including one unfortunately bizarre non sequitur exchange as Scrooge seemingly debates the Ghost of Christmas Present as to whether it is God), and the dialogue seemed freshened when not used exclusively to tell the tale. The narration also adds some levity to the dark proceedings, as Dicken's wordplay and descriptions are often humorous.

Coleman also uses a complete musical score by composer Clark Taylor, all spooky synthesizer as well as sound effects, to further heighten the atmosphere of dread. Lighting designer Daniel Ordower should be singled out for special praise for his Grand Guignol lighting that is only warm when it needs to be, and which otherwise is blue and dank, unsettling and confronting.

The cast is uniformly strong, with standouts being Scott Coopwood (whose Marley is the creepiest of the ghosts), Michele Mariana, (whose characterizations are so different that sometimes the only reason you know is because of her shape), and Vana O'Brien (who gets two of the show's bitchiest characters). Young Colton Lasater is requisitely cute as Tiny Tim, and he gets his own eerie moment, marking out Scrooge's tombstone in the future. Watch for a couple of cross-dressing moments as well, including one in which a lesbian debtor couple expresses joy at Scrooge's demise.

The biggest frustration with the production however, has to be with two of the ghosts. When Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Present (David Meyers) "I've never seen the likes of you before," we expect him to live up to the proclamation and the costume; he's got the Liberace-in-the-1800s look, but little attitude. And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come ranks as the show's biggest groaner, looking like one of those homemade giant hippie puppets you see at the Oregon Country Fair. Better to lengthen the robes, hide the puppeteer, and give it some more atmosphere, as this ghost amused more than terrified.

But those are small quibbles indeed for what is an excellent staging of a classic. Coleman has taken bits of Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven and intermixed them with Dickens, and the result is an entertainingly chilling evening.