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Actors in UM's production of "A Christmas Carol" rehearse a scene recently. Center is Mark Metcalf, playing the part of Ebenezer Scrooge, left to right in the back is Hugh Butterfield as Bob Cratchit and Kurtis Hassinger and Aaron Tumer as gentlemen.

Mark Metcalf plays a good villain.

As ROTC member Doug Neidermeyer in "Animal House," he was convincing enough that a few death threats were sent to Universal. ("I thought I'd done my job," he said.)

As "The Maestro" on several episodes of "Seinfeld," he played an arrogant conductor who gets his comeuppance when Jerry and George learn his real name.

Metcalf believes, though, that Bob Cobb was just too narcissistic.

And he said his character The Master, technically the bad guy in Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was just misunderstood.

He said he was typecast since "Animal House," but concedes that playing the villain is more enjoyable.

"It's just fun to play pure evil, because you don't get to do it in real life, unless you want to get arrested," he said.

Which brings us to his current role: Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," a production by the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance.

Director Cohen Ambrose heard that Metcalf lived in Missoula through a friend, who had seen the veteran character actor read at one of the Colony screenwriting workshops.

Metcalf moved to Missoula a year and a half ago when his son transferred to attend UM, specifically for its wildlife biology program.

Metcalf signed on, because he said Scrooge is a great character with a great arc.

"He starts out just the meanest, crankiest guy on the planet and actors always love to do that because you have to be so nice all the time. So you get to be mean and nasty, and that's always fun," he said.

In addition, he cited the "miraculous transformation" that occurs after the old miser returns home late on Christmas Eve, crankier than usual, and has a visitation from a series of ghosts from his past.

They've taken the view that the spirits can be seen as hallucinations, a "near-death experience" to Scrooge, that spurs his change toward decency.

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Ambrose started out by looking back to Charles Dickens' novella and searching for scripts that stayed true to his imagery, wordplay and plot.

"I think culturally with 'A Christmas Carol' we've gotten a little far away from what he was trying to do," Ambrose says. Over time, a "dark, haunting tale of mourning" has been "sentimentalized" and "sensationalized," partially because of Disney and the myriad sunnier adaptations.

They both cited the importance of Dickens' themes of extreme poverty and inequality in Victorian England.

"The book comes out of a much darker time in England than most of us realize in terms of wealth disparity, and poverty, depths of poverty and the way poverty is treated," Metcalf said.

Ambrose eventually chose an adaptation from the 1990s written by his adviser, Jere Hodgin, and they reworked the script.

To honor Dickens' writing, the play is about 40 percent narration, split between 22 different characters and eight or so actors.

Metcalf said the narrators function like a Greek chorus. Sometimes they'll work together, like "a chant back and forth."

There are two alternating casts, members of which will play up to four characters. (It requires a lot of costume changes, and a lot of costumes.)

Ambrose said the greatest challenge so far has been staging a script that's so heavy on narration.

For the scenic designer, the question was "How do you represent dozens of locations in London and the countryside across decades of the man's life?" Ambrose said.

There are different levels on the stage, allowing Scrooge and the visiting spirits to stand apart from the scenes in Scrooge's past as they play out before his eyes.

Other times, at Metcalf's suggestion, Scrooge will be thrust "in the midst of them, almost getting run into, and crowd scenes almost spun around him so he's really inside the hallucination and not just passively observing," Metcalf said.

Ambrose said the quick transitions from an intimate scene to a crowded outdoor scene make it "quite musical. It sort of slides around the theater," he said.

They'll also employ some animated video and projections to "capture of the hallucinatory quality of Scrooge's visions," Ambrose said.

***

The 30-year-old Ambrose said he's learned a lot from working with Metcalf.

Most of Ambrose's experience is in new, experimental plays on a small scale in New York and Europe, while Metcalf is a veteran of television, film and American theater.

"I've learned a lot about working with somebody with that kind of experience," Ambrose said. "He's given me great ideas, which I mostly get to take credit for."

Metcalf has also been working on a radio drama with Annie Garde of Montana Public Radio for the show "Pea Green Boat."

He and a set troupe of actors each play a "type" in classic Commedia dell'arte style, an old Italian form. The humorous stereotypes include a "full of himself, young leading man," a "possibly drunk character actor," and more who dramatize the stories with a soundtrack of classic, radio-drama effects.

It's called "Let's Draw," and the first story is "The Velveteen Rabbit," based on one of many scripts by Charlie Sommers, a friend from Wisconsin who works in radio drama.

They just recorded the first episode and an air date isn't scheduled yet.

Metcalf said he'd like to be involved in local theater, and has discussed with other locals the need for a Missoula version of smaller-cast "off-off Broadway" theater in New York - plays that are tougher, more difficult or challenging. He said musicals and family fare are well-represented, but this particular strain of theater is lacking.

He says there's plenty of talented young directors and actors with interest in it, but the city lacks an organization such as the now-defunct Montana Actors' Theatre, which regularly staged new works at the Crystal Theatre.

"I think Missoula could certainly support it," he said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment Editor for The Missoulian.