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Wonderheads Christmas Carol brings new edition home to Belfry

A Wonderheads Christmas Carol runs Dec. 2-23 at The Belfry Theatre in Victoria
web1_a-wonderheads-christmas-carol--03--photo-by-daryl-turner
A Wonderheads Christmas Carol runs Dec. 2-23 at The Belfry Theatre in Victoria. DARYL TURNER

‚ÄčA WONDERHEADS CHRISTMAS CAROL

Where: The Belfry, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Dec. 2-23
Tickets: Pay What You Want, available at 250-385-6815 or online at tickets.belfry.bc.ca

A Wonderheads Christmas Carol will make its Belfry Theatre debut this week, which has co-creators Andrew Phoenix and Kate Braidwood riding high on a wave of possibilities.

The three-week engagement forced the Victoria husband-and-wife team to get wildly creative in order to pull it off. With performers wearing full-face papier-mâché masks — some of which add several feet of height to the cast members — A Wonderheads Christmas Carol is not easily adaptable.

“It was designed for proscenium touring houses [where an arch frames the stage and hides from the audience backstage comings and goings], venues like the McPherson Playhouse, where you enter stage left and right and there’s wings,” Phoenix said.

“All of those things are out the door at The Belfry, because the stage is open. It was a challenge.”

The husband-and-wife team is always up for a new opportunity, which has served Braidwood and Phoenix well to this point. After moving to Victoria from Portland, Oregon, in 2016, the couple’s unique brand of theatre — which mixes Italian commedia dell’arte, Japanese Kabuki theatre, theatrical clowning, and silent cinema — is consistently ranked among the best in the city.

The re-imagined version of A Wonderheads Christmas Carol (which premiered in 2019) wasn’t updated for The Belfry exclusively. The co-creators of Wonderheads Theatre are constantly tinkering, trying for the best results possible. Their ambitious new version of the Charles Dickens classic provided them with several opportunities in that regard. “We can’t help ourselves,” Braidwood said with a laugh.

“We always make a few changes, and this year especially because we’re doing it at The Belfry, which is a very different space than what the show was designed for. But that affords us the opportunity to create some new design work.”

The rigors of touring need not be accommodated this time out, which was a bonus for Braidwood and Phoenix. Though the capacity of The Belfry is smaller than past productions — A Wonderheads Christmas Carol often goes into the 1,260-seat Massey Theatre in New Westminster, and has travelled from Alaska to Hawaii since its inception — the venue’s open-format stage resulted in elaborate staging and adjustments to their lighting design.

“There is more set than there was [in previous performances],” Phoenix said. “We can dig in deeper because we don’t have to create a smaller scale touring show. We can let it live and breathe.”

Co-directors Phoenix and and Braidwood each occupy several roles in the production, and serve as set, puppet, mask and sound designers. They are joined by a talented cast and crew of more than a dozen trusted collaborators, but the heavy lifting — in the literal sense — is done by the on-stage cast. Braidwood, Jessica Hickman, Pedro M. Siqueira, and Sarah Robertson play 20 characters between them, all of which require the actors to wear heavy, poorly ventilated masks.

By incorporating puppets of their own creation into their physical, atmospheric, and dialogue-free performances, Braidwood and Phoenix have become hot property around Victoria. Not only are they immensely talented, the couple has consistently kept productions by Wonderheads Theatre top of mind for theatre fans across the province. By pushing into unexpected areas, this is little else like it.

But the more experience they accrue, the more Braidwood (who was born in Vancouver, but attended the University of Victoria) and Phoenix (who went to school in Texas) felt like renewing their commitment to Victoria, according to Braidwood. In previous years, A Wonderheads Christmas Carol would have spent the majority of December on the road. This year, the production stayed put for its exclusive Belfry engagement.

“We felt at home in Victoria really quickly,” she said. “We’ve really been embraced by the community, and we love it here. We feel like we connect with the local audience, but we are still able to tour. That was a bigger imbalance for us in earlier days. But we feel a connection to our audience in Victoria.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com