By Kevin Zimmerman
It’s the most wonderful time of the theater year.
Two of Queens’ more innovative troops — Variations Theatre Group and Titan Theatre Co. — have dusted off a couple of holiday chestnuts, added a few twists to the scripts and wrapped them up for audiences to rediscover and savor.
Variations is set to open “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” Friday at Long Island City’s Chain Theatre, while Titan, the recently named resident company at Queens Theatre, plans to mount a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
Although both stories take place on Dec. 24, neither is a tale written only for those who celebrate the holiday, said the two companies’ managers.
“This is not a Christmas play,” said Kirk Gostkowski, artistic director at Variations. “The theme is what would the world be like without me? That is a question that everyone has asked themselves.”
Across town in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Titan Artistic Director Lenny Banovez also downplays the Christian aspect of Dickens’ 1843 novella. It is not a Christmas fable, but rather one that everyone can relate to, said Banovez.
“It is a story about redemption,” he said.
At the Chain, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” — which is playing somewhere on cable TV right now — has been transformed into a 1940s live radio drama being broadcast on Christmas Eve.
Gostkowski, stars as an actor portraying George Bailey, along with a half dozen other thespians who inhabit each of Bedford Falls’ residents — from Mr. Potter right down to little Zuzu with her crushed rose petals — while also handling the accompanying sound effects.
Although he thought about staging the show last December, Gostkowski said Variations’ recent production of “Talk Radio” made it clear the time was right.
“After ‘Talk Radio’ radio plays really appealed to me,” he said. “They are visually compelling and we get to work with all this cool audio equipment. Plus, we had a bunch of great voice actors who were in ‘Talk Radio’ who are in this.”
The story, primarily remembered for its numerous saccharine turns, is actually a dark tale at its heart with the lead character’s contemplation of suicide setting the action in motion. Naturally, everything works out in the end for George Bailey and the audience, but focusing on the more dramatic elements makes the show an ideal choice for Variations, said Gostkowski.
“This is the story of an everyman who is struggling against all odds to find meaning in his life,” said Gostkowski. “It deals with the same issues as all the plays we have been doing.”
Since its inception in 2009, Titan has been making a name for itself by taking classic plays — mostly Shakespeare — and distilling them to the main themes and plot points while discarding the rest.
Queens Theatre audience members should expect more of the same with Banovez’s and Emily Trask’s new version of “A Christmas Carol.” But that’s not to say the beloved tale of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his other-worldly visitors is unrecognizable.
“It is very much about the story,” said Bailey Seeker, who takes on the roles of Scrooge’s lost love, Belle, and Emily, the wife of his nephew Fred. “And it has very much a classical feel, but the words flow so much easier. It feels very much like I wouldn’t feel crazy saying these things nowadays.”
Besides more modern-sounding dialogue, another change includes the use of traditional English carols throughout the play and between scenes for dramatic effect. The writers have also set the opening in the present day.
When the curtain rises, the audience encounters a grandfather reading Dickens’ book to his grandson. As the story progresses, the two morph into Scrooge and Tiny Tim and take their places among the other actors.
Broadway actor Kevin Loomis, who understudied multiple roles during the 3 1/2-year run of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” has eagerly stepped into the lead.
In other productions of “A Christmas Carol,” Loomis played The Ghost of Christmas Present and Mr. Fezziwig, young Ebenezer’s boss, but he had not been considered for Scrooge.
“It is such a transformational character,” said Loomis. “He does this complete 180, and you get to play both sides of the coin.”
Loomis praised the two Titan writers for their adaptation that pulls more heavily from the original text and includes additional scenes of a young Ebenezer as he begins his descent into avarice and greed.
“We get to see Scrooge meeting Marley when he was a young lad,” said Loomis. “You get to see his slow transformation to the religion of money. It’s wonderful to see the fruition of this and to see how the seeds were sown.”
Loomis is also excited to see how audiences react to one change in particular created for The Ghost of Christmas Future. Without giving too much away, Loomis said it really digs the knife deeper into Scrooge as well as those watching the story unfold.
“There is a little bit of Scrooge in all of us,” said Loomis. “And this is just a nudging to remind us to open our hearts the rest of the year. There is nothing wrong with being reminded.”
If you Go
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”
When: Dec. 5 through Dec. 21
Where: The Chain Theatre,
Cost: $18/adults, $15/students and LIC residents, $9/children
Contact: (646) 580-6003
“A Christmas Carol”
When: Dec. 11 through Dec. 21
Where: The Queens Theatre, 14 United Nations Ave. South, Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Contact: (718) 760-0064
Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 260–4541.