Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Until 3 years ago, our family was among the anomalous few who had not seen A Christmas Carol, a signature presentation of Soulpepper‘s annual Family Festival. We saw Michael Shamata’s evocative adaptation of Charles Dickens‘ most famous Christmas tale that year, and have returned every year since. This simple yet striking production attracts many families like ours who have integrated it into their holiday traditions.
Soulpepper’s A Christmas Carol has become as much of a draw for the actors. Many in the ensemble return to it each year, settling back into a familiar, comfortable and beloved space. This year, Eponine Lee returns to the roles of Fan, Scrooge’s beloved older sister, and Belinda, one of Bob Cratchit’s 6 children and older sister to Tiny Tim. Krystin Pellerin also reprises her role as Belle, the young, upwardly-mobile Scrooge’s intended, who loves him but leaves him when his insatiable drive for wealth overturns his values.
Some will know Miss Lee from Common Boots Theatre Company’s Tails from the City and Tarragon Theatre’s carried away on the crest of a wave. She also appears in the cast of UnSpun Theatre’s Lost and Found. So far, so busy for the 10-year old Toronto-based actor, who is an avid reader with aspirations to become a writer. Her co-star Ms Pellerin has performed at Soulpepper every season since she graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada in 2006. Her performance as Lady Macbeth in Stratford Festival’s Macbeth in 2016 is one in a long series of brilliant stage portrayals. Her screen work includes 6 years as Leslie Bennett on CBC’s Republic of Doyle and recently, a role in the Newfoundland-based and -shot short film Touch, which won the Jury Choice Award at the Cannes Film Festival’s Diversity Short Film Showcase last year.
With such full schedules, what has brought each back to A Christmas Carol? For Miss Lee, the opportunity to return to a familiar role is not only “really fun,” but also practical: “I didn’t have to memorize lines again because I’ve done it before, so it’s just fun to do the scenes and be in the show.” Ms Pellerin “feels fortunate” to have the chance to be a part of “this beautiful production a second time”. It provides the chance to experience the story from a deeper place, having lived it last year: “Being a year older this time around makes it feel like it’s evolved.”
Since its publication in 1843, A Christmas Carol has assumed a life of its own, in iterations that span all media. Shamata’s adaptation is faithful to its Victorian-London source and captures the sentimental spirit of the cautionary ghost story. Three temporal spirits visit the curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, forcing him to confront his past and present, and peer into his dismal future. The prospect of spending his life “yet to be” as a friendless loner compels him to change from malcontent to benefactor.The rich performances highlight the themes of greed, selfishness, friendship and poverty that still permeate the popular consciousness. What else keeps it popular and relevant to our time? Miss Lee credits the show’s ability to makes audiences feel “scared but happy at the same time”. She also notes that the theme of charity strikes a responsive chord: “Some people feel bad for the poor people in the play, and it shows them that charity is important.”
For Ms Pellerin, it remains a timeless story about a “spiritual awakening, of being present to the life we’re living and being truly grateful for what we have, and how to be a good person in the world.” She sees the story as “so rich and soul-searching that it always feels fresh and full of discovery.” I love how honest Belle is,” she says of her character, who speaks the truth, right from her heart. “The scene between Belle and Ebenezer (played as a young man by Kawa Ada) is heartbreaking and moves me every time, even though I’m on the inside of it.” And watching Scrooge (played by the incomparable Joseph Ziegler) witness his past, present and future is still “incredible. And his redemption at the end cracks my heart wide open, too, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.”
Several other aspects of this production appeal to Miss Lee. One highlight is the inventive staging, which is a significant part of the play’s charm: “Getting to go under the trap in a scene and rehearsal” is a thrill! She also delights in seeing “Uncle John Jarvis pop up from under the stage as Jacob Marley. I like it because I find it really cool. The sound and lights are so cool!” she marvels. Ms Pellerin also loves the atmosphere of the play set in the round. “The audience surrounds us on all sides”, which “makes the experience of the story intimate and personal for everyone in the room. That in itself is magical,” she observes quietly. “And the way Scrooge is guided . . . by each of the spirits is magical storytelling as well and a treat to witness.” Since the intricacies of how this is done are best experienced firsthand, Ms Pellerin is circumspect to avoid spoiling the illusion. It is safe to acknowledge that the staging relies on precision, given the multiple costume changes, plus numerous entrances and exits — from around the theatre and below the stage, and often in complete darkness.
When asked for advice for adult castmates and directors who are working with young people, Miss Lee’s first inclination is to provide “nothing really!” This is because by her nature, she is a “kind of a goody-two-shoes,” and (by now) experienced at taking direction. Warming up to the question, she avers that young people benefit from explicit direction on what is required. For instance, “when you see a kid standing up when they’re supposed to be sitting down, or it’s during a scene, and you think they should be sitting down, you should tell them to. Otherwise, people could run into them, or they could get in trouble with the chaperone, or they could break something just by exploring the room.” Sound advice! Accurate synchronization (of young and old alike) depends on safe and strategic manoeuvring, rooted in clear expectations.
A final highlight of performing this play is the opportunity to meet and work with people both new and familiar. Miss Lee refers to several of her acting “family”: in particular, “Auntie Maggie [Huculak, who plays Mrs Fezziwig], Auntie Seren [Lannon, Apprentice Stage Manager], Auntie Théa [Pel, Assistant Stage Manager] and Uncle Danny [Chapman-Smith, Harlequin]. Highly collaborative, she has the most fun performing in scenes with other people. “I love the Cratchit scene!” Miss Lee enthuses. While she enjoys working with all of her cast mates, she is especially comfortable working with “Auntie Ellora” (Patnaik, who plays Mrs Cratchit) and “Uncle Kawa…because I’ve known them longer than anybody else has, and they’ve both worked with me and my mom [Director Nina Lee Aquino] or dad [actor Richard Lee].”
And Ms Pellerin’s final highlight? The ability to perform a Christmas play that returns at the same time every year holds a special appeal all its own. It is “the best present” that she could ask for: “I get to be a part of one of the greatest stories ever written, to work with such beautiful people, and I get to walk to the Christmas Market every day to work. It doesn’t get much better than that!”
As we close our conversation, both offer a warm welcome back to this beloved holiday staple: “See you soon,” winks Miss Lee. “I really hope to see you all at the show!!” smiles Ms Pellerin. “It’s not to be missed. It’s the perfect way to enter into the holiday spirit!”
Agreed! Watching this play is like picking up a beloved book, dog-eared from repeated readings. We anticipate eagerly the palpable comfort that it holds. So it comes as no surprise that this year’s Christmas Eve performance has already sold out. Happily for those – like our family – looking to revisit this beautiful show, there are performances throughout the week leading up to Christmas.
News You Can Use
What: Soulpepper’s A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; Adapted for the stage and originally directed by Michael Shamata; Directed by Joseph Ziegler
Featuring Kawa Ada (Young Ebenezer), Cody Black (Tiny Tim Cratchit), Kaden Boland-Trowbridge (Peter Cratchit), Kevin Bundy (Mr. Fezziwig), Daniel Chapman-Smith (Harlequin), Eleanor Guy (Martha), Stephen Guy-McGrath (Fiddler), Margaret Huculak (Mrs. Fezziwig), John Jarvis (Jacob Marley), Tangara Jones (Harlequin), Eponine Lee (Belinda), Ellora Patnaik (Mrs. Cratchit), Krystin Pellerin (Belle), Jordan Pettle (Bob Cratchit), and Joseph Ziegler (Ebenezer Scrooge)
Who: For audiences 8 years and older
When: On stage until Christmas Eve, 2017; running time: 2 hours (includes one 20-minute intermission)
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON
For Info and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca and 416.866.8666
FYI: Full Family Festival offerings
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya