Spooky Action gets big donation; ‘Christmas Carol’ done 3 ways at area theaters

(Mark Ramont/Ford's Theatre) - Emme Hall, right, works on costumes for the annual Ford’s Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol.” Hall is with Tom Story, left, Erin Driscoll and Edward Gero.

Spooky Action Theater has received an anonymous donation valued at $1.6 million. The donation consists of more than 1,000 items, ranging from art deco furniture to American and European artwork to a rare 1965 British sports car — in mint condition.

Richard Henrich, Spooky Action’s artistic director, says, “The gift was a complete surprise,” but it was the result of a “long-standing relationship with the donor.”

Spooky Action operates out of a small multi-use space on 16th Street NW that seats about 70 people. “Our work is intimate and really appeals to a small, hard-core audience of folks who love theater in a pure form. . . . We see this donation as a validation of what we’re already doing.”

Spooky Action received the gift in late spring, at which point Henrich set out to have the items appraised. That enormous undertaking resulted in Spooky Action opting to replace its normal fall production of 16 performances with a two-day staged reading. The theater plans to be back on a regular production schedule in February.

The theater will use some of the items — clothing for costumes, inexpensive pieces as props — and sell the rest at auction (sales in the District, New York, Paris and Geneva are scheduled) as well as at a gala event in March.

Money raised from the sales will go to increasing the size of the staff; Henrich works full-time with one part-time employee, and he plans to add two full-time staffers. Invested proceeds from the auctions are expected to finance 15 to 20 percent of Spooky Action’s operating budget in future seasons.

Christmas Carol season

This week, Backstage is gearing up for the holidays with three productions of “A Christmas Carol.” Even if you’ve memorized the story of the rich Grinch whose ghost-guided tour down memory lane leads him to embrace The Christmas Spirit Within, you’re bound to find something unexpected in the District area’s new takes on the classic.

Dress to impress at Ford’s

“A Christmas Carol” is probably the most conventional of all Christmas shows. But Emme Hall is anything but conventional.

The day I meet her, she has electric purple hair. Two days before, it was peroxide blond; before that, punk-rock pink. It spikes up an inch or so above her head. On breaks from her job as Ford’s Theatre’s costume manager, she heads back to her native California to do off-road racing.

Now, she is giving a grand tour of the costumes for this year’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” The Ford’s production has been a District tradition since 1980, with a new adaptation performed every five years. This is the third year of this incarnation.

“The women start off wearing this, called a hoop,” Hall says, stepping inside a contraption of boning shaped like the Liberty Bell. “These poor girls have to plan when they’re going to go to the bathroom.”

Hall retrieves a petticoat with more ruffles than there are tiers on a towering wedding cake, and she pulls a skirt over that. Her outfit spans the width of the hallway; the circumference of her dress is about six feet. On top of this, the actresses will wear camisoles and jackets.

Actors wear wigs made of human hair. Each hair is tied on individually. One wig is approximately 40 hours of work. The dresses, too, are time-consuming creations; Hall estimates the dress for Martha, the eldest Cratchit child, took 30 hours of work, “if you’re sewing really fast.” And that’s just one costume for one character; there are 17 adults and 12 children in the cast, six of whom perform at a time.

Friday through Dec. 31 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 202-347-4833. www.fordstheatre.

Missing mistletoe

Actress and playwright Marni Penning’s birthday is Dec. 23. She has what you could call a Christmas complex.

“When your birthday is during the holidays, you become obsessed with Christmas because it’s the only time of year that’s supposed to be about you, but it’s not,” Penning says. “You get swallowed up by the season.”

Even for those whose birthdays don’t fall near one of the world’s most famous birthdays, the holidays can be exhausting. It’s a lot of cheer, that’s all.

“I was really frustrated with the lack of adult fare around holiday times,” Penning says. “You’re always stuck seeing ‘The Nutcracker’ or something. They’re nice productions but, every year? Come on.”

These frustrations, along with Penning’s then-recent “really horrible” divorce, led Penning to write what would become “Carol’s Christmas,” her first full-length play, in 2003.

Pinky Swear Productions’ “Carol’s Christmas,” which will have its world premiere on Friday, is packed with salty language and mature content. Carol, the fictional protagonist, shares a birthday with Penning. She is a recent transplant to New York City, where “she got overwhelmed by all the possibilities outside her door and got hurt by a bad relationship,” Penning says.

Carol locks herself in her apartment and avoids her Christmas-obsessed family, including a sister with the Dickensian name of Marley. On Christmas Eve, Carol embarks on a Scrooge-like trek with the ghosts of Ex-Boyfriend Past, Ex-Husband Present and Partner-Yet-to-Be.

“A lot of us, to some extent, are disillusioned at the holiday season,” Penning says, “and want to see it twisted somehow. It’s very satisfying to take a story we know so well and turn it upside-down to comedic effect.”

Friday through Dec. 23 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. 703-943-7656. www.pinkyswear-productions.

Scrooge on Broadway

“A Broadway Christmas Carol,” opening Thursday, utilizes dozens of Broadway songs whose lyrics got a makeover by Kathy Feininger. The production features hits from shows such as “Avenue Q” and “Gypsy” with new, Scrooge-themed content.

Feininger’s three-person show is a sort of tradition unto itself, having enjoyed more than 300 performances from the District to Singapore since it premiered at Round House Theatre in 1998. It was written for three people, but can be done with more, and has been performed with casts of up to seven.

“A Broadway Christmas Carol” isn’t driven by a radical formula: Take a familiar melody, provide new lyrics and allow for entertaining tension between the original song and new words within it.

The turning of the straight play gives viewers an unexpected point of entry into a familiar story, Feininger says. “People relate to musicals because all of us want to be able to sing our thoughts.”

Feininger stresses her show’s loyalty to the source material. “What makes [an adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’] successful is that you have to remain true to Dickens’s story. You cannot alter it. It is the greatest ghost story ever written.”

Thursday through Dec. 18 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. 703-548-9044. www.

Read what others are saying