Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Kevin Thies
By Bec Willet
It’s difficult to understand how a theater that’s been around for 43 years can think it viable for a director to cast themselves in the title role. The pitfalls of such a choice are on full display in Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production A DICKENS CAROL. A near-facsimile of Charles Dickens prolific A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Ned Crowley’s play has Charles Dickens standing in for Scrooge, peppering the plot with historical characters and occurrences from his life. Although familiarity can be a source of tedium, in this case I was thankful for the anchor it provided in an otherwise jumbled vision.
Seeing as it’s physically impossible for one person to be in two places at once, it follows that it is impossible for a director to clearly see and thus direct when they are acting in almost every scene. In this production, there were frequent missteps that could easily have been avoided simply by having the director off- instead of on-stage. We open on a train where Dickens (Kevin Theis) argues with his wife Katherine (Jhenai Mootz), petulantly complaining over the Christmas spirit surrounding him. Yet while the set piece simulates a carriage, as does the underpinning soundscape, the actors are not blocked to treat it as such, moving in and out of the carriage without any reflection of the location. It may seem a small thing but for an audience in a lengthy scene that frames the entire play, it is a glaringly obvious and jarring oversight. As the production continues, frequent instances of unmotivated blocking, unrefined on-stage quick-changes, myriad of inaccurate dialects and unrehearsed moments continue to draw attention to the missing outside perspective.
The hodge-podge continues into the characterization – something especially important for a play where much of the ensemble play many roles. While a number of actors struggle to take their interpretation beyond a trope, there are those who clearly have a great deal of skill and it’s from here we are given something to engage with. Where the blocking is generalized, Erica Bittner makes specific physical choices to bring characters to life. Where Jhenai Mootz’s Katherine is given little eye contact or connection with her husband, she uses this to drive her emotional journey deeper. Where the style and pacing of the text are not harnessed by other performances, Rob Koon’s character choices and comic timing hit every beat. Yet even with these efforts, without the direction creating the cohesion and shape it feels as though each performance belongs to its own play.
While it’s clear from that a great deal of effort has gone into Oak Park Festival Theatre’s A DICKENS CAROL, the resulting production is rarely clear or compelling.
A DICKENS CAROL runs through December 24 at Oak Park Festival Theatre, oakparkfestival.com.