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Holiday Spirits

By Wendi Kaufman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page WE22

MATT AUGUST HAS a penchant for unpleasant characters. The director of "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas" at Ford's Theatre says he was drawn to the seasonal production for one reason: Ebenezer Scrooge.

The miser and misanthrope created by Charles Dickens has always appealed to August. "Scrooge is not such a bad guy," he says. "He was just misunderstood." Bah, humbug, say you? Citing the social ills of Victorian London, August argues that Scrooge's aversion to charity and contempt for holiday cheer was about more than ill temper. "Look at the world around him," he says. "Scrooge was simply protecting himself from the poverty he sensed encroaching on him every day."

Martin Rayner plays the miserly Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas." (T. Charles Erickson)

The role of Scrooge is played by Martin Rayner, who also appears at the beginning of the play as Dickens, reading aloud from the story. August hopes the dual role will underscore the similarities between character and creator. "They shared a profound awareness of poverty," he says.

Long drawn to work with socially conscious and political themes, August interprets Michael Wilson's 1990 adaptation as a tale of redemption. "It's a story of a man being taught that he is not an island, that he can't exist alone," he says. "It's a call to action to connect with his community. What could be more relevant?"

August says audiences should not expect a traditional Victorian revel. The production is part ghost story, part fairy tale, awhirl with colorful costumes and elaborate pageantry. Indeed, its carnival atmosphere prompted Ford's Theatre producing director Paul R. Tetreault to call it " 'A Christmas Carol' meets 'The Wizard of Oz.' " And then there are the ghosts.

Many people don't realize that the full title of the holiday favorite is, "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas." August says Wilson's adaptation is truer to the supernatural aspect of Dickens's tale than previous ones. As director, he emphasized the ghoulish visages of Scrooge's nocturnal guides -- the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come -- and of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's dead business partner.

August is mightily pleased with the play's "dazzling and eerie" special effects. The otherworldly aspect of the story is emphasized with creepy details like the unearthly rattling of Marley's chains, the spirits' slow descents from above and the fog-shrouded Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Each ghost takes on the characteristics of a street vendor Scrooge has encountered earlier in the play. The vendors give Scrooge tokens -- a clock, a doll, a piece of fruit -- as down payments toward their debt. These items become totems of the ghosts to come, foreshadowing each apparition's visit. "The ghosts reinforce the theme of the haves and the have-nots," says August, noting that it is Scrooge's debtors who lead him to understanding. "And it's all shown through Scrooge's perception of the world, which is fantastical, especially when the ghosts make their appearances."

August believes the power of the play's message accounts for its continued popularity 160 years after its publication. That message -- that one person can make a difference -- is illustrated by the redemption of one of fiction's least lovable characters.

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

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