Portland Playhouse puts modern spin on classic Scrooge story

COURTESY: PORTLAND PLAYHOUSE - Jen Rowe plays Ebenezer Scrooge in Portland Playhouse's 'A Christmas Carol,' after playing a ghost the previous three seasons. Being a woman playing a man is 'not that big of a deal because the story is so human,' she says.A month ago, as rehearsals started for Portland Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol,” Jen Rowe thought about her role playing the mean Ebenezer Scrooge, as well as thinking “Hillary was going to win, and how it’d be the year of the woman.”

Well, the presidential election went the way of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but it hasn’t stopped Rowe from putting her Scrooge into context with the person who will inhabit the White House.

“Every time I’m on stage, there are looks, words and reminders of the darkness we can go into when we feel victimized by our circumstances, society or a situation,” Rowe says. “But, I’m also reminded that we can look to each other to pull ourselves out of that darkness. It’s hard to play Scrooge because of the presidential election, and how we’re going to be treated.”

Time will tell, just as time told that Scrooge treated people awfully and then he woke up and found redemption by beginning to treat people nicely.

“The influence of the play is one of the reasons it’s so enduring. It’s so universal about every human and how we look at each other as humans,” she adds.

Rowe probably isn’t the first woman to play Scrooge, but Portland Playhouse has certainly gone gender neutral in the fourth year of staging the Charles Dickens’ classic, which started with previews Wednesday and opens officially Saturday, Dec. 3. She plays Scrooge, Eric Little plays Molly, Charles Grant plays Mrs. Fezziwig, and Rachel Lewis plays Bob Cratchit.

As casting started for Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol,” directors Brian Weaver and Cristi Miles and others thought, why not have a woman play a man and a man play a woman? Rowe, who had been a ghost in the previous three shows, turned down opportunities to return as a ghost, but when Weaver asked her to play Scrooge, she decided to give it a go.

“With gender neutral, it allows us to explore humanity without gender,” Rowe says. “I love that we’re able to acknowledge in this production that (limitations) don’t matter. The story is about us as humans, and it’s that simple. ... We’re upping the ante with gender neutrality. It’s one of the things I asked Brian for when he asked me to play Scrooge — ‘How are we going to fill out the cast and make it interesting?’

“Each of us can relate to these stories as far as boxes — religion, color, creed. And, it feels like a very Christian way of telling the story.” The cast is small, and most actors play multiple roles, so it made sense to cross over, gender-wise, she adds.

Portland Playhouse’s highly acclaimed, oft-sold-out version of “A Christmas Carol” is heavy on storytelling and acting and light on visuals and pictures. It’s what attracted Rowe, 33 years old and a Fresno, California, native, to the holiday show — when she doesn’t really like holiday shows. She has worked with Artists Repertory Theatre, Third Rail Repertory, Portland Center Stage, Milagro Theatre and others, as well, since moving to Portland in 2004 and graduating from Portland State University in 2008, but always shied away from the holiday shows.

Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol” appeals to Rowe’s sense of nostalgia and “how I can better live in the world and challenging me to be a better human being.

“There are a lot of people who enjoy this production,” Rowe says. “It feels like a tradition to me. It’s interesting to be handed the role of Scrooge.” She wears a suit and top hat — but doesn’t use a cane — and “there will be iconic imagery.”

Playing the character Scrooge is a challenge, she says.

“It’s a dark character because of things that Scrooge has experienced, the way he had been treated by his family and father,” Rowe says. “He’s been told by society how he’s supposed to become a man — making money, setting a goal he’ll never be able to achieve. He’s up against a lot.

“A lot of us can identify with that. What’s wonderful about the end of the play — what drives me crazy about ‘A Christmas Carol’ is it’s very Disney, as he wakes up from a dream and feels OK and everybody loves him. But I’m not interested in that, it’s not real or truthful. We wanted to keep him grounded and truthful for someone coming from a dark place.”

Drew Harper had played Scrooge in the previous three Playhouse productions. Rowe and Harper watched all the versions of “A Christmas Carol” that they could stand; George C. Scott’s portrayal rates as Rowe’s favorite.

Rowe says being a woman doesn’t matter when playing a role such as Scrooge’s.

“It’s not that big of a deal because the story is so human,” she says. “I just relate to what he’s saying and what he’s experienced. Whatever will come out of me will be truthful and believable — androgynous, feminine and masculine, like we all are.”

Portland Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol” stages at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 30 at Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott St. Tickets are $25-$34. For info:

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