Nothing is off limits for the playful creators of A Christmas Carol.
This year, the crew is hiding mystery objects under the bed for Rhys Bevan-John's Scrooge to discover.
One day, it was big-eyed stuffed toys, the other a pinata — and Bevan-John has to think very quickly to fit the objects into the 85-minute show.
But that's what this version of A Christmas Carol is all about, says director Jeremy Webb, who first adapted his version of the Charles Dickens classic in 2003.
This show, an Eastern Front Theatre production running Tuesday, Dec. 13, to Dec. 24 at Neptune's studio theatre, is similar to English pantomime where audience participation is key and actors freely ad lib.
"I love it,” says Bevan-John, playing 20 characters and working with puppeteer Simon Henderson, “It's a beautiful mix of traditional scripted theatre but with the allowance to be really playful and throw a bit more chaos into the game of the play."
“I created it to have these moments of smashing the fourth wall to pieces on purpose,” says Webb. “It's very specifically designed to do that. It needs the licence Rhys has been given and encourages his crew to hide something under the bed.”
The message of A Christmas Carol, however, is very serious. It has resonated with people ever since 1843 when Dickens published his story of a miserly man being visited by three ghosts who teach him about humanity.
“It's a story that asks us to question — when you put your life against the backdrop of your own death — what is most significant,” says Bevan-John. “And the answer is family and giving and good cheer and benevolence, and that's a very important message.”
“Particularly right now, with everything going on down south and here in our own province,” says Webb, speaking on the day the Nova Scotia government was to introduce legislation to impose a contract on public-school teachers.
“For me, it's about seeing through Scrooge the possibilities for your own redemption,” he adds. “It's holding a mirror up to your own soul.”
Webb performed the show 650 times over 12 years, including two tours to the southern U.S. states before Bevan-John took over last year.
Bevan-John, a wildly physical and comedic actor who recently starred in Neptune Theatre's Stones in His Pockets, was the puppeteer for A Christmas Carol in 2003 and toured with it a number of times.
Last year, “I was doing an interpretation of an impression of Jeremy,” says Bevan-John. “This year, I'm finding it's settling into me and I'm feeling a sense of ownership.”
“I trust him,” says Webb. “It is one of the most exhausting shows to do. For 90 per cent of the show, you're out there by yourself, you and the audience, and it's your job to keep them engaged.
“We do a lot of family and school shows. They'll let you know immediately they are losing interest.”
Bevan-John, who loves improvising, says this job is play, not work. “It is a lot of fun. The last third is crafted to have fun with the audience and (philosopher) Alan Watts says that to spread joy, you have to have it. I'm trying to cultivate a sense of joy when I'm working on it.”
As artistic producer of Eastern Front Theatre, Webb has brought A Christmas Carol, previously presented through his Off the Leash productions, into the fold of the company, which just wrapped up its fall production of Tompkinsville.
In April, Eastern Front produces Chasing Champions, Jacob Sampson's story of Weymouth boxer Sam Langford, then the Stages Theatre Festival in May.
For the 2017-18 season, Webb has commissioned Karen Bassett to write a play about the Halifax Explosion to run at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic from Nov. 24 to Dec. 10, 2017, for the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
The play, called Lullaby, will travel to schools, presented by Neptune Theatre, in a 45-minute version in March, then be expanded for the mainstage run.
Lullaby tells the story through three characters, a white Protestant, an African-Nova Scotian and a Mi'kmaq. “They all come together,” says Webb. “The stories of the African-Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaw cultures aren't reflected in stories of the event. The museum also wanted to tell these stories in an enhanced exhibit."
Bevan-John is next on stage in his show Happy Hobo in Moon Land, which he takes on a Neptune school tour for elementary school kids in the spring.
A Christmas Carol has been affected by the provincial government's decision to cancel school last Monday and by the teachers' work-to-rule action launched last week. Schools cancelled shows — the play was to have been performed for students' benefit beginning Dec. 2. (The shows for the general public begin Tuesday.)
“It's hit us really hard,” says Webb, who supports the teachers. “We've lost easily $7,000 at this point, with the potential that it could go up to $10,000.”
The school matinee slated for Wednesday is cancelled; the Dec. 20, 10 a.m. show, originally for schools, is now open to the general public.
Tickets for A Christmas Carol, with stage manager Jessica Lewis, are at the Neptune box office (1583 Argyle Street, 902-429-7070, www.neptunetheatre.com) at $28 regular and $23 for students, seniors and artists. (Prices include fees, but not HST.) Details of evening (7:30 p.m.) and matinees (all at 2 p.m. except for Dec. 20) are online (www.easternfronttheatre.com). Groups of eight or more may arrange for a special rate by contacting Webb at Eastern Front Theatre at 902-466-2769.