Last year was exhausting, right? No wonder people pushed themselves to have the merriest holiday of their lives in 2016. Online sales hit the highest mark ever during Black Friday weekend. Consumers wanted, more than ever, to escape real life and celebrate in tinsel wonderlands. Now that you’ve digested plenty of fa-la-las and other family favorites, you might be ready for a palate cleanser.
Gorilla Theater Productions has just the thing: An Xmas Carol, the new play that twists the Dickens’ classic into something subversive and sinister.
“We’re doing this as an anti-Christmas Carol,” says writer and director Nathan Anderith. “If you’ve got that last little bit of holiday stress, this [show] can get rid of it.”
Though 85 percent of Anderith’s script reads straight from the book, his adaptation upends the story entirely. Here, Xmas is a cult that demands and controls both charity and love. The miser, Esmerelda Scrooge, is the last holdout—until three high-level members of the cult use harrowing supernatural indoctrination to break her will.
“We ended up with something that was explicitly fighting against the text,” Anderith says. “We keep the same characters, the same flow lines, the same arcs [as Dickens]. Our subversive take comes in by adding levels of complexity to the characters.”
Scrooge’s nephew, for example, is now a menacing, high-level cult member with two wives. Bob Cratchit struggles between elevating his low ranking in the cult and conforming to a boss who explicitly resists it.
“A Christmas Carol is, at its core, the seduction of Scrooge,” he says. “We couldn’t show too many things [from the dark underbelly of the cult] because that would repel the character of Scrooge.”
What they can show, however, is plenty creepy. Tiny Tim has a “cult voice and face” that echoes Children of the Corn. The Spirit of Xmas Future reveals that Scrooge’s supposed friends don’t just steal her possessions, they remove her organs by careful autopsy.
Featuring a cast of 20 people, including six kids, as well as a large production crew, An Xmas Carol is a dark exploration of a familiar story—but not an attack on Christianity, or even Christmas.
“There’s a reason that we called the play An Xmas Carol and not A Christmas Carol,” Anderith says. “We actually explicitly, and multiple times in the play, draw distinctions between Xmas and Christmas. There’s a scene where a boy is seen reading a Bible, and there’s a lot of fear that he’ll be found out. Using any kind of religious iconography, even saying the word ‘Christmas,’ puts you in danger.
“It’s not trying to say that the religion itself is a cult,” he says. “It is simply about the ways in which a desire for these things [like] love, family, connection, joy and all of that, can be used as tools to create a compelling exterior with a hollow and corrupt core.”
The concept came to Andersen after Anna Lien, “the founder/dictatrix/mastermind of Gorilla Theater Productions,” asked him if he’d like to direct A Christmas Carol. Rather than reproduce a show that’s been done so many times, he brainstormed ways to flip it.
“If Scrooge was no longer the bad guy, how would that be possible?,” Anderith says. “You could either make him a nicer person, or you could make other people meaner, or you could take the ideas he was resisting—the love and family and all that—and make them dark and sinister. That I got excited about.”
The staged version of An Xmas Carol varies greatly from Anderith’s original adaptation, which he drafted in just a few days. Dramaturg Carol Pederson helped streamline, focus and straighten out the storyline, and actor feedback brought the script to life.
At first, Anderith struggled to keep the play from being gimmicky. Broocks Willich, who plays Esmerelda Scrooge, helped change that.
“We never intended to cast a woman,” he says. “I felt that would be pushing it a bit too far. But [Willich] gave such an amazing audition. She’s a professional actress, and her style, and the schools that she trained in, is all about realism and humanity. Everything needs to be true. I come from a more conceptual background, where I try to do cool ideas and visuals. We certainly butted heads a few times, but what we ended up with was something that felt like a real story.”
At some point, Anderith says, he also recognized the appropriateness of certain political allegories. “The idea of a woman who is very successful but is told her entire life that she’s not friendly enough, and not nice enough, and that she ought to be kinder and gentler and not so ambitious,” he says. “…how a certain group of people force this change and then break her.”
The edginess of An Xmas Carol is something of a hallmark for Gorilla Theater Productions, which has its own dedicated space and plenty of freedom for a director like Anderith.
“We can really take projects and run with them,” he says. “What’s fun is we also work with kids. At least half of our shows are teenage or children productions.”
During production a few months ago, he says, the theater faced an “existential crisis” when it ran out of money.
An Xmas Carol, and the theater company itself, shut down—until a few people, unwilling to let down the kids, created a board and became fiduciaries.
“Whenever we can’t cover payments with ticket sales, we cover it out of our own pockets,” Anderith says. “We’re not rich people, so it wasn’t the easiest decision to come to, but it was important enough to us to do it.”
Then IX Art Park stepped in, offering An Xmas Carol its stage space for no more than a cut of ticket sales. “I’m very, very, grateful to them,” he says.
He’s also outspoken about the kindness of the local theater network, from Live Arts to Four County Players and back. “People were just incredibly giving with their time, and their energy, and their resources,” Anderith says.
Xmas may be a cult, and Christmas may be over, but the love and kindness that thrives during the holidays? Turns out that spirit remains alive and well in Charlottesville.