Arts & Culture

Riverside Theatre uses contemporary storytellers to tell 'A Christmas Carol'

John William Watkins of Iowa City assumes all the roles in #x201c;A Christmas Carol,#x201d; as he performs a solo adapta
John William Watkins of Iowa City assumes all the roles in “A Christmas Carol,” as he performs a solo adaptation of Charles Dickens’ original novella. The Riverside Theatre production will be available online from Friday through Dec. 13. (Rob Merritt)
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In a year full of bah humbug moments, Riverside Theatre is aiming to lift spirits past, present and future with a virtual telling of “A Christmas Carol.”

But it’s not the usual setting, with a stage full of people in early Victorian garb and spooky specters rattling your chains. It’s a solo adaptation by playwright Paul Morella, appropriate for family viewing.

“We’re the first company he’s let it out to,” said director Ron Clark, 70, of Iowa City, one of Riverside Theatre’s original founders. “He let it out to us six years ago, and we got back in touch and he said, ‘Sure.’ And the cool thing about this adaptation is that it’s all Dickens. The words are all Dickens. ... When you hear it, you know, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the real stuff.’”

Unlike Dickens’ three-hour live readings in America in the 19th century, this version, taped in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Grandon Studio space, will last about 95 minutes. It debuts online at 7:30 p.m. Friday and continues through 11:59 p.m. Dec. 13.

Actor John William Watkins, 48, of Iowa City, will be wearing many hats as he narrates and voices all the characters, but he won’t be changing any hats. He will be dressed in 20th century clothing, speaking the original 1843 text.

“There are no hats at all,” he said. “It’s about changing the way they speak. It’s a lot about how they speak, and their dialect, their pitch, their cadence, their tempo, so I work a lot with that. And then, there are physical things that either came from trying to find the character or my body just goes there when I go into them.”

“The word ‘fluid’ comes to mind,” Clark said. “His characterizations are deep and nuanced and delightful.”

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But he’s not alone onstage. Fiddler Tara McGovern, 42, of Coralville, is reviving the role she played in 2014, moving the story along through the language of music.

“I don’t speak other than through my instrument, but the musical cues that we’ve chosen sometimes are to underscore emotion and other times are to illustrate scene changes. As we’ve adapted it again for this new retelling, we’ve changed some things. I think my role has taken on, in some places, sort of a film scoring aspect that wasn’t present in our onstage version six years ago.”

“I think of Tara as the third storyteller,” Clark added. “John has the words. He has the original coming at us from the writer’s own heart. Tara adds an additional layer of heart and comprehension of what’s happening emotionally, as well as scenically, as well as within the realm of humor. She’s not a side musician, she’s not the orchestra. A lot of the score, Tara has created herself,” including a dog bark and other “really fun little interjections.”

Clark deemed Watkins and McGovern “contemporary storytellers telling this very old story,” and as such, McGovern will be dressed in contemporary clothing, too.

They will stand at a safe performing distance from each other, and their main set pieces are carved stands — McGovern’s ornate music stand on loan from Iowa City wood artist Nancy Romalov, and Watkins’ sturdy structure built by Chris Rich, the show’s production designer and technical director.

And just because the words were first spoken in the 19th century, they continue to speak to 21st century listeners, bringing wisdom wrapped up in changed hearts. It’s something all three principal players hope audiences take to heart.

“We need joy in this world right now,” Clark said, and he wants the production to give audiences “a renewed sense of hope, and rediscovery of the simple power of family, of love and of redemption.”

“It’s really a radical story for its time,” Watkins said.

One that shows hearts can change.

“Dickens was very much the social justice warrior of his time,” McGovern said. “ ... I feel like that whole theme of self-examination is so relevant to us right now. And for Dickens to have those words then that can resonate with us now deeply, is very meaningful to me.”

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“It’s so easy for us to have our blinders on,” Watkins said. “This idea of change and how our hearts can change no matter how old we are — because Scrooge is up there — we have the ability to start living in a way that is just making the most of this time. ... This story makes this man see that the more he gives, the more he gets. The more he shares himself with others, the greater his life is going to be.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

if you go

What: “A Christmas Carol,” solo adaptation by Paul Morella

Where: Online; link sent via email after ticket purchase

When: Streaming from 7:30 p.m. Friday (11/27) through 11:59 p.m. Dec. 13

Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students, Riversidetheatre.org/acc

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