Colleen Madden puts on spooky holiday solo show

APT alum adapts another Charles Dickens story
Colleen Madden puts on spooky holiday solo show
Images courtesy of Colleen Madden
Colleen Madden's one-woman show

Colleen Madden can understand how her audiences might mistake her for a Charles Dickens expert. After all, the American Players Theatre Core Company actor has some strong connections to the famed 19th century novelist.

She’s the one who adapted the lively and spooky version of “A Christmas Carol” that Children’s Theater of Madison has been rocking the last seven years, and she’s also starred as several of the spirits in various productions of it.

Now, beginning tonight —Thursday, Dec. 12 — at Two Crows Theater Co. in Spring Green, Madden will star in “A Christmas Haunting,” a one-woman adaptation of Dickens’ obscure novella “The Haunted Man” — an adaptation she wrote herself. It marks the kickoff of Two Crows’ second season.

The protagonist of Dickens’ original tale is Redlaw, a chemist in Victorian-era England who returns home after years spent abroad, now haunted, both figuratively and literally, by overwhelming feelings of bitterness and regret. Madden has reimagined the character as a female physicist/mathematician in a more modern setting, struggling with modern emotional issues. She’ll play all six characters in the story — two Americans, two Brits, an Irishman and the ghost.

The show is being staged in a two-thirds thrust setting in the cozy confines of the Slowpoke Lounge and Cabaret (formerly The Jefferson) in downtown Spring Green. That means the time-honored actor’s trick of simply turning a different direction to indicate a change in character won’t work. Instead, Madden will use voices and physical affectations to differentiate them.

Madden says her character is the opposite of Ebenezer Scrooge, the more well-known Dickens character who’s haunted by spirits. Madden’s scientist is acutely aware of the painful emotions that are consuming her and ruining her life and needs no spirit to point that out to her.

“That’s most of us,” she notes “We know we could do better, but somehow we can’t.”

Penning and performing an adaptation is yet another new artistic wrinkle for Madden at Two Crows. In the company’s inaugural season, she directed longtime friend and fellow APT Core Company member Tracy Michelle Arnold in “The Belle of Amherst.” It was her first time directing a show.

In “A Christmas Haunting,” Madden is being directed by another APT Core Company member, Marcus Truschinski, who joined Two Crows’ artistic staff earlier this year, alongside Kelsey Brennan, yet another Core Company member. (Company cofounder Robert Doyle is one of the company’s other artistic members.)

Madden admits that writing doesn’t always come easily for her (“Like a lot of artists, I struggle with art in its nascent form,” she says.) Originally, she tried to shoehorn a Dickensian vibe into her dialogue. Then she remembered who she was writing it for.

“Knowing I’d be speaking it, I could use my own voice,” Madden says.

That advantage cut both ways, however, as Madden discovered when the show entered tech. She found the lines much harder to memorize, even though she’s the one who wrote them.

“They’re my words, so I have 16 versions of them running in my head,” she explains, “In rehearsal, I’m constantly changing things.” Even this week, Truschinski and Madden were fine-tuning the dialogue together.

There were also additional challenges to overcome. Without the benefit of the rattling chains, fog machines and special effects that typically attend a production of “A Christmas Carol,” Madden had to resort to other strategies to evoke a spooky atmosphere.

“I had to paint a creepy story just with the language,” she explains. “But there’s something unquestionably delightful and satisfying in having to use your imagination. I’m hoping there are some genuine scary moments that have to do with basic storytelling. Still, I had to put in one jump scare.”

She chuckles. “It’s funny to do a jump scare on yourself.”

“A Christmas Haunting” opens in previews this Thursday and runs through Dec. 22. For ticket information, click here.

Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.

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