Two years ago, when Theatre in the Rough presented a half-puppet, half-person adaptation of Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor," actor Zach Falcon joked that his hand-puppet - the character of Justice Shallow - looked a little like Ebeneezer Scrooge.
That comment, however offhand, inspired directors Aaron Elmore and Katie Jensen to think about an all-puppet and mask production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
More than 80 hand-crafted puppets and masks later, the play opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, at McPhetres Hall. It's truer to Dickens' original intention, "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas," than it is to the Disney-fied classic.
"We're really taking up the ghost story of it and making it truly spooky," Jensen said. "It's not cutesy at all. It's beautiful, but it's much more mysterious than the 'Christmas Carol' that most people have seen before."
It's so different, in fact, that a Fairbanks director who saw an early rehearsal told Jensen he wasn't sure what choice Scrooge was going to make at the end.
"A Christmas Carol" stars a cast of 10 operating an assortment of hand puppets, rod puppets, Japanese bunraku puppets, Indonesian shadow puppets, face masks and top-of-the-head masks.
Some puppets require more than one operator, and all the actors are visible as they operate the characters. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a 6-foot-tall Japanese bunraku puppet with three operators. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is a giant aerial puppet that stretches 8 to 10 feet across and breaks into smaller pieces.
The text is straight out of Dickens, but the script includes dance, prerecorded and live music and a large dose of theater magic. The stage itself is ghostly, shrouded in veils.
"We adapted the play for this stage and this space, these actors and for these puppets and these masks," Elmore said. "This is a small place. It's kind of a chamber piece. And when you have 10 actors it fills the room."
"This is less of a Christmasy thing, and more about a life landmark that everyone will come to," Jensen said. "Everybody has that moment when you decide whether you're going to make the turn to be part of humanity. That's what this time of the year brings out. It asks them to be totally generous and it asks them to be totally greedy. I think it will be a relief for people to see this approach."
Elmore made all the puppets and masks himself. The set of eight European puppets was used in "Merry Wives of Windsor." He began making the rest last summer. He has no formal puppet training. He simply studied different styles and expanded on what worked.
"Puppets have the ability to do things that people don't," Elmore said. "They can bring stories to life. They can make characters important that aren't.
"The hardest thing the operators have to do is make the puppets walk and talk at the same time," he said. "It takes a certain amount of hand strength. Zach Falcon has developed pronounced muscles in his forearms from operating the controls four hours a night for the last two months."
Most of the cast had experience working with puppets or masks before.
"Puppets are so strange," Falcon said. "They take on a life of their own. It's a combination of the liberation of using the mask, and also the masks and puppets are beguiling to watch. It limits some of the subtleties of a human face or a gesture, but it also allows some very pointed moments that would look very silly if a human would do them."
"It's a great story, a classic story, and the puppets were exciting to me," said Maria Gladziszewski, who hadn't worked with puppets. She operates Fred, Scrooge's nephew.
"Normally, as an actor, you walk into the room and look at the other people you're talking to. In this play, the puppets do that. It takes awhile to remember not to do what your instincts are telling you to do," she said.
Scrooge - Zach Falcon; Ghost of Marley - Ed Christian; Ghost of Christmas Past - Katie Jensen; Ghost of Christmas Present - Aaron Elmore; Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come - Peter Freer; Bob Cratchit - Jason Alexander; Fred, Scrooge's Nephew - Maria Gladziszewski; Tiny Tim - Ian Andrews; Little Fan, Scrooge's Baby Sister - Alice Ottoson-McKeen; Belle, Scrooge's Fiancee - Doniece Falcon.
Directors - Aaron Elmore and Katie Jensen; Stage manager - Catherine Melville.