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They're Clowning Around With 'A Christmas Carol'

Theater * The San Diego Repertory Theatre has traditionally taken liberties with Dickens' classic. This year, the setting is a circus.


SAN DIEGO — During rehearsal breaks, actors in the theater are known to step away for some soul searching. Some conjure so much angst and self-doubt, they metaphorically climb the walls.

At recent rehearsals of "A Christmas Carol," though, actors at the San Diego Repertory Theatre used their rehearsal breaks to climb the walls . . . literally.

"Circus people are different," said Mike Genovese, the veteran character actor who plays Scrooge in the 25th anniversary production at the Rep. 'It's been interesting and invigorating."

At the Rep's "A Christmas Carol," which opens Friday, a three-ring attitude prevails. During the last 2 1/2 decades, the company has adapted the Charles Dickens holiday classic many different ways, including versions that helped raise awareness of the homeless, celebrated the gospel and showcased the narration talents of local celebrities and politicians. This year, the Rep has decided to send in the clowns.

The idea for a circus-themed "A Christmas Carol" originated when the Rep asked actress, musician and director Joan Schirle to direct the production. Schirle, a founding member of the respected Dell'Arte Players Company in Humboldt County, conferred with D.W. Jacobs, the Rep's co-founder, who has been adapting the Dickens classic for 25 years. Together, the two hatched a production showcasing Scrooge as a miserly circus owner and ringmaster who attempts to conduct three shows on Christmas Day, finding himself visited by three ghosts representing, as always, Christmas past, present and future.

Nearby is Scrooge's assistant Bob Cratchit, who heads a loving family of gymnastic tumblers, including the sickly Tiny Tim. As ever, Scrooge is taught a lesson in the value of love and friendship and the importance of caring for others. This time, the lesson is taught amid a colorful whirlwind of jugglers and clowns, oddball eccentrics and the freakishly talented personalities that make a big top complete.

"Dickens himself was very interested in the circus, and really all forms of popular entertainment," Jacobs said before a recent dress rehearsal. "A lot of people looked down on popular entertainment at the time, because the novel was reaching the height of sophistication. But Dickens was very eclectic in his range of styles."

Jacobs said Dickens was a frequent stage performer who was also an amateur magician and ventriloquist, and who edited the memoirs of the great 19th century clown Joseph Grimaldi.

"In his early newspaper pieces, Dickens often wrote about the circus," Jacobs said. "He was able to move in styles representing both the novels of the time and those anticipating Samuel Beckett and that sort of dry comic irony that you don't get until later in the 20th century. There's another strand of his writing that's like an Old Testament prophet, emphasizing the gap between the rich and the poor, and foretelling doom unless that gap was lessened somehow. So his words became almost a fusion between hardened realism and pure fantasy, between matter and spirit."

For the Rep's purpose, the love of the circus that Dickens professed, along with the recent resurgence of the circus and movement through such entities as Cirque du Soleil, and even "The Lion King," made this an easy choice.

"I could see immediately how the whole story could fit into this world," Schirle said. "We took the mythic aspects, this man desperately in need of redemption and change, and studied his need for family. The circus has always been a family, but Scrooge has divorced himself from that family. The circus members help Scrooge make his transition." Schirle draws a parallel between Scrooge's life journey and that of circus performers.

"In the circus there is a possibility of danger and risk," she said. "That's also a metaphor for what Scrooge needs to do. He's abandoned his sense of risk and needs to open up and go flying again." Schirle has woven dance, music and movement into the piece, careful not to let the spectacle overpower the story.

"What we're not doing here is pausing the story to do a circus act," she said. "The acts are entertainments that serve the story. In that sense, what we are doing is musical theater, in which moments of high emotion are revealed through song. In this case, we are revealing those moments through circus acts, not with the use of mechanics, special effects and equipment. We're after a very high level of human ability, with balls, rings, hoops and stilts."

Genovese, known for his work on stage, film and in guest appearances on television's "ER," has played Scrooge twice before in repertory theater versions. He says he had to carefully consider a circus version of "A Christmas Carol."

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