Historic Preservation 

Local actor reclaims original spirit of Dickens' Christmas tale

Local actor reclaims original spirit of Dickens' Christmas tale

A Christmas Carol

Dec. 2-11 at Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Ave.

Show times: 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.

For reservations, call 297-7113

With snow-filled scenes of merry Victorian carolers and Scrooges who seem about as threatening as Santa Claus, stage versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have become a warm and fuzzy holiday tradition in America. It’s a tradition actor/writer Mark Cabus hopes Nashville audiences will break this year in favor of his new one-man version of Dickens’ oft-told tale. “ ‘Marley was dead’—those are the first three words of the book,” says Cabus. “In Dickens’ own forward, he says he has written a ‘ghost story’ he hopes will ‘haunt’ the reader. Yet most stage versions open with people walking around singing and being Christmas-y.”

Lightening the mood of Dickens’ story in that way, while enjoyable, dilutes the impact of its message, according to Cabus. “The original story takes us from a very dark place to a bright one,” he says. “It’s a story of redemption and resurrection, and the payoff at the end is much more significant if it is earned.”

Dickens’ tale traces the miraculous evolution of Ebenezer Scrooge from a heartless, old skinflint to a man renowned for his generous spirit. Scrooge’s journey begins one Christmas Eve when the ghost of his deceased partner Jacob Marley awakens him. Miserable and bound in chains, Marley tells Scrooge to expect visits from three apparitions, each of whom will reveal to Scrooge a part of his life. With the first of these ghostly escorts, Scrooge revisits his past and sees himself once more as a young man capable of love and hope. He also relives the precise moment when his last chance for love slipped through his greedy fingers. Next he explores the present through the eyes of his clerk Bob Cratchit and through those of his own nephew Fred, both men who value spiritual riches above the earthly ones Scrooge covets. Finally, Scrooge leaps into the future for a preview of the lonely ending to his own wretched life. At last Scrooge reawakens in his bed, and as Christmas dawns he is a changed man.

“Dickens wrote this amazing iconographic tale,” says Cabus. “We don’t want to see ourselves as Scrooge, but we know there is a Scrooge in all of us. So we want him to be redeemed. We want him to be saved.”

Dickens himself toured America presenting readings of his works to packed houses in the late 1800s, and there is an existing version of the author’s own reading script for A Christmas Carol. A few years ago, British actor Patrick Stewart created his own one-man version of the holiday favorite and took it to Broadway and on tour. Cabus saw Stewart—best known as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation—do the show in Los Angeles but found Stewart’s version too much of a staged reading for his liking. “It was very simple, with no music or sound effects and very little in the way of lighting,” Cabus recalls. “Stewart is a marvelous actor, so it was very good, but it just wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

Cabus’ version also keeps things simple, with the actor assuming all the parts, including that of the anonymous narrator. He wears a single costume that is vaguely Victorian in style, and he performs on a set that includes only a few pieces of furniture. Music, lights, and sound effects, however, play an important part in Cabus’ adaptation. “There’s a wonderful section in the book where the ghost of Christmas Present flies Scrooge around the world and they visit a coal mine, a lighthouse, and a ship at sea,” says Cabus. “So in our show we have the sounds of the mine, the waves crashing around the lighthouse, and the ship creaking at sea.”

Lighting effects also help define the shifting settings as Scrooge tours his life on Christmas Eve. “The lighting for the scenes in Scrooge’s rooms is very different from when the action moves out of doors,” Cabus explains. “We’ve kept it simple but still theatrical.” Traditional music of the Victorian era also underscores portions of the show. “It’s mostly period music that sets or enhances the mood,” says Cabus. “We aren’t using familiar carols, though. I think they tend to disengage the audience from the action because they recall specific memories for each of us that are unrelated to Dickens’ story.”

Cabus was a popular Nashville actor prior to moving to Los Angeles in 1995. Since returning to town late last year, he has been able to pick up his career locally as a writer, actor, and director. His stage adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time had a successful run at Nashville Children’s Theater this fall, and early next year he directs Denice Hicks in A Doll’s House and stars as Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency, both for Mockingbird Public Theater.

Despite his busy schedule, Cabus decided the time was right to produce his own Christmas Carol—although he was initially unaware that his one-man show would be competing against A Musical Christmas Carol, a lavish production now running at the Ryman Auditorium. The competition doesn’t seem to bother him. “There’s always room for the musical versions,” he says. “Mine is just another look at the story, one that I hope allows people to see past the glitz. We’ve become so technically skilled in the theater these days that the audience no longer has to work very hard. My version gets back to the storytelling idea of theater. There’s nothing commercial about it.”


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