Humbug! … on a string!

Humbug! … on a string!

Zoot Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” at Dayton Art Institute

By Jacqui Theobald

From Albert Finney to Bill Murray and hundreds in between, “A Christmas Carol” has been interpreted in numerous forms ever since Charles Dickens’ stories were first serialized in the mid-nineteenth century. Few are more original and creative, however, than The Zoot Theatre Company performing for the next two weekends in the NCR Renaissance Auditorium at the Dayton Art Institute.

Puppets and live actors in imaginative assortments are enlivened by each other. Five actors not only play all the well-known characters, they also become puppeteers. Artistic Director D. Tristan Cupp designed his puppets from unconventional materials so convincingly that the audience barely distinguishes the difference between a live actor and a gaunt Scrooge with arms and legs made of foam noodles.

Actor J. Gary Thompson inserts his shoes in the straps of the nearly life-size Scrooge, with one hand he grasps the head control to manipulate the mouth, with the other he manages arms and body and together they become one. Cupp has inspired the actors, telling them, “The puppet wants to be alive, wants to breathe. You bring it soul.” Scrooge by way of Thompson begins in his familiar “bah humbug” mode, and by the end of the 90-minute production has his joyful change of heart, definitely achieving life and, eventually, soul.

Puppets “talk” to real people, they talk to each other, actors exclaim and explain: the audience absolutely believes them all. The actors are totally visible, but seem to disappear when they speak for puppets.

Lizzie Miller makes her Zoot debut in an amazing variety of characters, both real and puppet. She inserts herself into a shoulder harness to become the Spirit of Christmas Past, a movie camera with a body. As an ingénue actor, she can flash a big-eyed look of amazement that brings moments of humor to the action.

Heather Atkinson plays everyone from Mrs. Cratchit to her puppet children, from a youthful character to an aging woman. With small changes of accessories and expressions, she seems to be many more than one person could possibly be.

Ryan James Imoff is tall and supple and moves himself and his puppets around the stage with grace and athleticism. He manipulates both small boys remembered and top-hatted townsmen, made to parallel his height with individuality. His live characters are dynamic and strong. He is the Spirit of Christmas Present, with a copper-pot furnace for a body.

Actor JJ Parkey is the much abused Cratchit – interacting with puppet Scrooge – shivering, scribing, taking a little nip, all with wonderfully broad interpretation. He is terrified, elated, saddened and sly. There are some twenty puppets in this show, and Parkey and Imoff operate many of them. He is also The Spirit of Christmas Future shown as a series of shadows, seen then dissolved. Drawings, also by Cupp, and videos add to the eerie atmosphere of the future.

Director Aaron Vega wrote this version of the well-known story, bringing vigorous action and drama to the production. The actors – with and without puppets – move beautifully, choreographed to bring time and scope alive.

“I believe in minimalism combined with high theatricality,” Vega said. “I take note of Tristan Cupp’s philosophy.” The set reflects that thinking.  It is a series of ropes and boxes, large and small that are moved, like the puppets, swiftly around the stage by the actors. They create space and place, tables, chairs, beds and buildings. The ropes make horses’ reins and people chains. A water-based smoky effect creates a foggy London town.

Costume designer Shirley P. Wasser, one of the resident artists of the Zoot Theatre Company, created beautiful and historically correct mid-nineteenth century clothes for all the actors.

What this company has accomplished together is worth noting. The actors were not trained puppeteers. They had to learn to make puppet mouths open and close when they talk; they had to learn to move their own bodies as they move puppet bodies. They had to truly become another, finding and infusing emotion as actors know how to do.

In this production, as in previous work, Zoot has found a way to take a classic and create an entirely new art form. If, in the vast height of the Dayton Art Institute’s NCR Renaissance Auditorium, a bit of dialogue is lost, it hardly matters. The story is well known and the skill of the company carries the plot in mime and motion.

We sometimes think of puppetry as only for children. This “Christmas Carol” may be a little challenging for toddlers, but school-agers, their parents, grandparents and sophisticated friends will be awestruck by the magic. Don’t miss the wonder and charm of this holiday opportunity.

The Zoot Theatre Company presents “A Christmas Carol” at the Dayton Art Institute’s NCR Renaissance Auditorium, 456 Belmonte Park North, Dec. 7-9 and 14-16. Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., Sunday shows at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors and $12 for children 12 and under. For more information, visit www.daytonartinstitute.org or www.zoottheatrecompany.org.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.


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