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Oh Ebenezer! Ebbe gets his humbug on

Portland Center Stage actor bring Dickens' naughty character to life
by: © 2009 OWEN CAREY, 
A new director, a fresh cast and a crisper script promise to increase the delight of Portland Center Stage’s “A Christmas Carol,” with Ebbe Roe Smith as Scrooge, opening Nov. 27 on the Main Stage.

Playing the ultimate Christmas role can be challenging for any actor, but Ebbe Roe Smith sees a little bit of himself in Ebenezer Scrooge, the crotchety old man of Dickens 'A Christmas Carol' fame.

He might have not uttered the exact words 'Bah Humbug!' in his life, but the feeling has been there around the holidays before.

'I've been accused of that,' says Smith, a Portland resident and actor for eight years. 'I come around Christmas, hear those carols ringing and you can't go into the store without hearing the same five songs being played at you. People smiling at you, coming at you, basically trying to get you to buy stuff.'

Just like Scrooge, whose ghosts help him realize the ills of his miserly and cranky ways, Smith says 'eventually I come around. It's a struggle every year, but I have two kids and my wife's a Christmas nut. The decorations all come out and I get into it.'

Smith, 60, plays Scrooge in the Portland Center Stage's production of 'A Christmas Carol,' which runs from Friday, Nov. 27, until Dec. 27 at the Gerding Theater, 120 N.W. 11th Ave. There will be nine shows a week, but they'll be short productions - 90 minutes without an intermission. It's the third season that PCS has done 'A Christmas Carol,' and Smith had the opportunity to play Scrooge in the first two, but obligations with screenwriting prevented him from doing it.

The list of actors who have played Scrooge is long and impressive. Alastair Sim was Scrooge in the 1951 movie version. Jim Carrey's comedic portrayal will soon hit the big screen. Smith plays the classic Scrooge, and the folks at PCS say he plays the role well because of his sharpness, effectiveness with the range of his emotions and elasticity in his face.

'It's a role of extremes and, by the end of it, you're just sweated out, tired,' says Smith, a longtime actor who also wrote the screenplay for the 1993 Michael Douglas movie 'Falling Down.'

He adds: '(Scrooge) is just totally angry in the beginning and then totally delighted at the end. You're always at the peak of some emotion riding on it. Then, in the middle, fighting against these forces who want him to appreciate what he's been through and what he's got. It's an up there emotional character, extremes at both end of the arc. … It's emotionally and physically challenging. I'm all over the floor when the ghosts come to talk with me, crawling around, and it's just tense. And, you gotta hit the depths of despair and the heights of glorious joy.'

Inspiration for 'Falling Down'

Smith has a bald head, but he dons the frazzled gray wig and mutton chops, top hat and coat - and he transforms. It's not about channeling Scrooge, he says.

'Characters come full blown to me. He just sort of flew into my mouth,' he says.

Smith says he has seen classic Scrooge movies, but not the PCS stage production or any movies lately, by design, so he doesn't have words or manners diluting his portrayal.

'I read the Dickens book, and we take our dialogue from that,' he says. 'Dickens is a brilliant writer, a great character writer.'

Smith, a self-described U.S. Navy brat, lived in New York and Los Angeles for acting and writing. He has been a member of various theatrical unions since 1980. Writing the screenplay for 'Falling Down' (1993) is the highlight of his career. He took inspiration for the screenplay from reading the Los Angeles Times and experiencing everyday life in the big California city.

In the movie, Michael Douglas plays an ordinary man who one day snaps, and wreaks havoc with violence across the city, all the while being chased by law enforcement, the lead cop portrayed by Robert Duvall.

'In the movie, the main character leaves his car on the freeway, and that was an actual fantasy I had, just walk away,' he says.

Smith was on the set every day and had a small part in the movie, as a fellow commuter who is sitting in traffic and reports to the incident to the police when Douglas leaves his car.

Acting all surprised

Smith moved to Portland eight years ago, and has mainly worked on PCS productions - 'How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found,' 'Act a Lady' and 'Celebrity Row.' He's married to Lisa Sanman-Smith, Portland Center Stage's human resources director.

He's also involved with PCS' Just Add Water Festival. In the future, he'll play a part in Hitchcock's '39 Steps.'

Smith worked on another movie script, where a man has his car repossessed and then looks for revenge on the woman at the finance company, only to fall in love with her. But the movie was never made. It prevented him from playing Scrooge the past two years at PCS, even though he studied for the part.

'I came in with my lines learned, I could put my script down after the second rehearsal,' he says, of this year's play. 'And, we had only two and a half weeks of rehearsal, before we went into tech, because (PCS) had already mounted (the play) twice. It's normally four to six weeks of rehearsal.

'This has been a sharp group, a lovely company of people. It's been a great time doing it, a lot of yuks. You make some good, deep friendships doing plays.'

If a ghost from his Christmas past took him back, Smith says that he would see times that he had been naughty.

'I have a generic feel of Christmas in the past, but I remember the excitement,' he says. 'I do remember when we snuck into the closet and found presents before they were wrapped for Christmas. I felt guilty about it, then I had to act all surprised.'