Theater Works brings ‘A Christmas Carol’ to the stage

It’s hard to think of a better compliment for a theater production designer than an actor afraid the special effects will look so real and scary that he might forget he’s in a play.

But that’s what Louis Farber said about the digital wonders Emmy winner Phil Wilson and his team have created for the revamped vision of Theater Works’ “A Christmas Carol.”

A tradition for more than a decade, the company is infusing more resources into its adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, which includes the most ambitious effects Wilson has ever fashioned for the stage.

The production runs through Saturday, Dec. 24, at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, starring Farber as Scrooge and directed by Theater Works Executive Director Chris Hamby, who said the company used the pandemic period to revamp the production.

“We used the time productively to really delve into the design details,” Hamby explained. “We asked ourselves, ‘What has or hasn’t worked in years past, and what do we really want this to look like?’ So, starting with a set we built ourselves out of some challenges we had. We also wanted new costumes, so we worked with a costume designer in Los Angeles, something that maybe we couldn't have done during a normal process because of the time crunch.”

And they brought back Wilson, the program director of the Center for Digital Media Arts at Huntington University, who had collaborated with Theater Works on “Sunday in the Park with George” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Wilson won a Rocky Mountain Emmy award this year for Lighting Location or Studio. He said “A Christmas Carol” dwarfs previous efforts.

“Where Sunday in the ‘Park with George’ was maybe like 10 to 12 items, this is a little bit more in the realm of 40,” Wilson said. “Throughout rehearsals, they tweaked the images, working with Hamby, the sound designer and other members of the creative team.

One of the most elaborate effects is Jacob Marley. The actor is filmed ahead of time in front of a green screen, looking at a tennis ball in place of Scrooge. Working with former student Laurel Zeiler, and using the Adobe software programs Premiere and After Effects, they create the surroundings and integrate the actor.

“We have him come from the bowels of hell into the stage, surrounded by hellfire, surrounded by smoke and white fog,” he said. “And then the physical Marley will come and replace him, which is exciting for me to think about how this digital projection is going to appear and sort of set the stage, so to speak, for the actual Marley to have his cue to physically then show up and do the rest of the scene.”

It must have worked, because Farber said he thinks the effects will blow people away.

“I’m nervous that there’s going to be a moment where I just am like up on stage and I’m totally taken out of it, because it’s so much, and I’ll turn and have to remember, ‘Right, there’s an audience out there.’ This is a case where you will be able to see where the money went. You’ll be thinking, where did that ghost come from? How did they do that?”

Given his long track record in local theater, it seems unlikely Farber will lose focus. A Pennsylvania native who works at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, he is the longtime associate artistic director of the Stray Cat Theatre, which produces more cutting-edge work.

Farber hopes to bring some of his natural humor to the role of the miserly Scrooge.

“I think my understanding and love of comedy helps me out in dramatic moments,” he said. “And I do think that being Scrooge affords you a bit of that as well. There’s something really funny about someone who’s so elitist that they have no concept of what’s going on. There’s that sequence where he watches at his nephew’s house where they’re having this great party, but the butt of every joke is him.”

While Theater Works commissioned an original adaptation, Hamby said it doesn’t stray from the original 1843 story.

“I think our piece really honors Dickens’ words in a way that is approachable without there being verbatim Dickens,” he explained. “You certainly have the essence of Dickens throughout it, but there are some modern nods that I think a modern audience goes, ‘Oh, I understand that line. I understand that joke.’”

With the new pieces in place, Hamby hopes the investments in this new-look “Christmas Carol” will remain a tradition for many years.

“I think our audiences are enjoying seeing how the show is changing,” he said. “And I think it also speaks to the evolution of the organization that the first ‘Christmas Carol’ had very sparse scenic elements and very sparse costumes. And this one feels very rich and very robust.”

If You Go...

“A Christmas Carol”

WHEN: Various times through Dec. 24

WHERE: Gyder Theater at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 10580 N. 83rd Drive, Peoria

COST: Tickets start at $40