“Dickens by Candlelight” is an enchanting theatrical experience.

ORLANDO – In his day, Charles Dickens would act out his classic short story “A Christmas Carol” in front of family, friends and other audiences, performing all the roles himself.

Considering how many characters there are in the saga of Scrooge and the ghosts that haunt him into an emotional reawakening, a theater could easily find a cast of more than 20 actors to tell the entire story.

And it might seem an odd choice to have just one actor play every role, even if, for example, the actor happens to be someone as talented as Orlando’s veteran actor/director John DiDonna, who seems more than capable of tackling Scrooge one second, Tiny Tim the next, and making both roles seem believable and engaging.

In “Dickens by Candlelight,” DiDonna plays Scrooge and a host of other roles, although he’s not alone on the stage, since he’s aided by actresses Morgan Russel and Monica Tamborello. Their goal is to bring Scrooge’s epic holiday journey to life in a way that seems fresh, invigorating, and funny. But with just three people alternating so many different characters and locations, does it work?

Before the show starts, the actors gather around a piano and lead the audience in singing Christmas carols.

As it turns out, quite magically.

To start with, Robin Olson’s adaptation of the Dickens holiday favorite has found the ideal location for this piece: the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Lake Ivanhoe. The renovated and restored home for the Orlando Ballet and the former Orlando Opera has a huge room ideally suited for this production, which dispenses with the traditional notion of audience members seated before a stage that the actors perform on. Instead, “Dickens by Candlelight” follows the much more engaging concept of having the audience seated at 10 tables decoratively set across the room, where pots of tea and plates of fresh cookies await them. There’s a huge and beautifully lit and decorated Christmas tree in the front entrance, and bows hanging in the windows. And, not surprisingly, there are lit candles on every table, and you’ll be thrilled at the moment when the room falls into total darkness – save for those candles, which give the room an enchanting feeling.

It gets better, though. When you first walk into the main hallway of the Performing Arts Center, you discover a grand piano that the actors stand next to as they lead the audience in singing several Christmas carols, before taking them into the theater. Everyone gets shown to their table, and they have a few minutes to meet the people seated with them. They can also use this time to pour some hot tea and enjoy the cookies awaiting them. If some holiday productions are just about seeing the show, “Dickens by Candlelight” goes a few steps further in making it a shared experience among audience and actors alike, a festive holiday event where we sing together, dine together, and experience together the glory of Scrooge’s newfound spirit of giving.

The three actors stay engaged with the audience even after the show has started, moving from table to table, talking occasionally to the people seated there, even inviting a few audience members to act out a scene with them. All the while the tea keeps flowing and the cookies keep disappearing, and DiDonna, Russel and Tamborello keep you fascinated with their energetic, electric command of the show.

Perhaps my favorite moment: there are bells at the every table, and at one point in the show, the audience is asked to ring those bells, filling the room with that happy sound. Waiting a few seconds for the bells to stop ringing, DiDonna paused, then added, “Not bad.”

As Scrooge, DiDonna takes a highly familiar character – a cynical, cold-hearted miser who despises the notion of employees being given a day off with pay once a year, just to celebrate a silly old holiday – and makes him seem both all too human and familiar, and at the same time larger than life. His journey of self-discovery and then rebirth is exciting, funny and, happily for the season, life-affirming.  

"Dickens by Candlelight" is magical.

This 90-minute production, performed without intermission, moves so briskly that you might be surprised at how quickly it goes by. And at the very least, if this doesn’t send you right into the mood and spirit of the season, check your pulse on the way out the door. “Dickens by Candlelight” is a happy reminder of why we love this time of year: the joy of being together, celebrating the things that make us feel like a little family, even for just one night.

“Dickens by Candlelight” will be performed tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at 1111 N. Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando. Tickets are $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors and students. For tickets, call 407-409-1619.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Dexter’s remains a local favorite, and for very good reasons.

ORLANDO – Do you know what a Dirty Dexter is?

If you’re thinking of the creepy guy who drinks too much at this wine bar and then hits on far too many unsuspecting women, not quite. I’m not saying that’s never happened, although my own experience is that the crowd at Dexter’s is a lot like the staff: relaxed, friendly, just having a good time.

No, the Dirty Dexter is three ounces of chilled Ketel One vodka mixed with olive juice and served with cheese-stuffed olives, available for thirsty patrons for $10 each. It might, I think, make a nice companion piece to the Screwy Grapetine, which for $8 gives you grape vodka with Florida orange juice.  If you’re not perfectly happy after these two, you might want to check your pulse on the way out the door.

Great locations can help just about any wine bar, but if you happened to open your doors in Thornton Park, you’ve got a superb head start over the competition. One of Orlando’s truly great “Hey, come on out and walk and window shop” neighborhoods, Thornton Park is always going to seem inviting the minute your car begins searching for the sometimes elusive parking spots (it is a popular location, after all.)

But Dexter’s is one of the great additions to this sublime neighborhood. It’s got the wine bar, it’s got a funky menu, it’s got artwork for sale on the walls. The music is upbeat oldies, the mood is always festive. How do you get in and out the door feeling depressed when Dexter’s seems guaranteed to life your spirits?

And have you ever gone there on New Year’s Eve? Hey, start popping the champagne the second you walk in.

Located at 808 E. Washington St., Dexter’s has a cozy outside seating area, but if you opt to go inside, you’re likely to be impressed by the massive U-shaped bar that has enough chairs lined around itto accommodate the neighborhood football team, and more than enough liquor inside the bar to satisfy both the players and their fans.

Private tables are lined all around the bar, with two spacious booths in the back of the room. There are television screens in the middle of the bar, although the radio mostly drowns them out with a parade of 60s and 70s oldies. Along the wall are paintings or photographs for sale – right now, the fine talent of photographer Mike Bass is available to view and own in nicely framed works like “Café Havana” (available for $100.)

Try one of Dexter's fine salads for a healthy fit lunch meal.

Now, if you’re there to drink, keep some things in mind. Dexter’s has a generous Happy Hour on a daily basis – Mondays from 3 p.m. until closing, and Tuesdays through Fridays from 3-7 p.m.

Thursday is Ladies Night – that means $2 off everything for the ladies from 7 p.m. until the bar closes.

In addition, you’ve got Saturday and Sunday Brunch that tempt you with $2.95 Mimosas and $4.50 Bloody Marys. If you need a reason to relax and celebrate the sheer joy of life, Dexter’s has your ticket. 

Dexter's is a great place to relax and unwind over a good drink -- like The Dirty Dexter.

It’s not just a place for a fine glass of wine or, if you’re the designated driver, one of Dexter’s Raspberry Tea, Luzianne Fresh Brew (unlimited refills for just $1.50), or San Pellegrino waters. There’s the meals that have made Dexter’s a favorite lunch spot for years.

Did you know Tuesdays are $1 Burger Nite at Dexter’s?  Nice, although when I sampled their Bangers and Mash plate recently, I was more than happy to pay the higher price of $9 for this excellent dish made up of two pieces of sausage dipped in mashed potatoes and gravy – a tasty import from our friends in Britain, very well cooked by the Dexter’s staff.  (Is it any coincidence that I was listening to the Moody Blues when the waiter served my plate? Long live the British.) You have plenty of other fine meals to pick from – sandwiches, soups, salads, pasta dishes, even Dexter’s Famous Grilled Colby Cheeseburger, which offers you an eight ounce fresh ground burger topped with melted Colby cheese on a grilled Kaiser roll, and even a good helping of Idaho fries tossed into the mix. At $8.95, that’s a bargain.

Whenever I go to Dexter’s for lunch, I make it a habit to get there by 11:30 a.m., before the lunch crowd starts moving in. By the time I leave, the place is usually packed.

My fellow lunch patrons have excellent taste. Dexter’s is a favorite spot in a popular neighborhood for a good reason: they do what they do so very, very well.

Dexter’s also has wine bars in Winter Park at 558 W. New England Ave. and in Lake Mary at 950 Market Promenade Ave., Suite 1201. To learn more, call 407-648-2777 or log on to www.dexwine.com.

“Snow” brings a macabre conceptual art show to Orlando, featuring puppets for grownups

The blue lighting in "Macabre Vignettes III: Snow" helps set the mood for winter in a forest.

ORLANDO – It could be just a coincidence – perhaps not – that when Halloween rolled around, temperatures remained summerlike across Central Florida.

“It was still warm out around Halloween,” said Tamara Marke-Lares.

Halloween is a significant date to her, because that’s when Tamara and her sister Leah Marke have been performing “Macabre Vignettes,” a conceptual arts show that melds together the unique talents both sisters have, including Tamara’s artwork and Leah’s dancing and choreography.

“This is the melding of puppetry and modern dance,” Tamara said, while Leah added, “For me, dance is what I do, but we’re really trying to use the dance to show her puppets.”

In the past few years, Macabre Vignettes has been performed in October, right around Halloween, to emphasis the eerie nature of the show. Set in a dark forest, there are black crows hovering above the dancers, a witch hiding in her lair with a brew steaming over a fire, and giant trolls that roam the woods. This year, though, the Marke sisters decided to alter the show a bit, by emphasizing something new and different: winter, and the cold blanketing the forest.

“In the past two years, it was done very close to Halloween,” Tamara said. “This year, it doesn’t feel creepy or eerie, but wintery – blue and snow.”

No surprise, then, that “Macabre Vignettes III” is titled “Snow,” and billed as a “Journey through a shimmering Winter World of unimaginable visisons.”

Tamara said it’s a nice coincidence that a strong cold spell, bringing temperatures down to the freezing level overnight, hit Central Florida just before the first performance on Friday. Just as the stark blue lights and snow falling from above set the perfect mood for the Snow performance at the Urban Rethink Studio, it was just as easy to glance out the window at Central Boulevard and spot pedestrians outside, all bundled up in winter jackets. That’s exactly what she was hoping for.

“I was really crossing my fingers, because it wasn’t cold out at all on Halloween,” Tamara said.

Leah said this is a winter show that doesn’t emphasize the holidays.

“It’s something to keep in mind, that this isn’t Christmas,” she said. “It’s fall and winter and snow.”

"Snow" mixes modern dance with marionettes and sculptural oddities.

This is the third year that the Marke Sisters and VOCI Dance have been performing Macabre Vignettes, which Leah said is the “umbrella name” for this evolving piece of work.

“It will always be that name,” she said. “It’s under a big umbrella that makes people feel all the elements connect.”

Tamara developed the concept, design, and artwork of the show, as well as the larger-than-life marionettes that haunt the dancers, and the costumes worn by the dancers.

Leah and Amanda Oost Bradberry did the choreography, with contributions from the dancers. The eclectic mix includes modern dance, art scultptures, ominous-looking puppets, music, and blue lights that definitely set the mood of winter – along with the snow that falls from above, letting the audience feel like they truly are in a winter wonderland.

“This is using dance as a medium to show and express,” Leah said of the hour-long show.

There are no chairs for the audience to sit on – they can stand anywhere they like inside the studio, and if they happen to get in the way of where the dancers are supposed to go, the performers gently brush them aside.  The audience gets even more involved when the witch crawls out of her hut bearing gifts — a tray filled with cupcakes which she hands out to the audience, with a cry of “Eat! Eat!”

But do they dare sample it after seeing the two rats on a skewer being roasted above her fire?

“For a lot of people, it’s seeing something like that for the first time,” Tamara said. “The crowd is definitely growing every year. They’re intrigued.”

While puppets have traditionally been thought of as entertainment for children, Tamara said this show takes them to a very different level. 

Puppets and sculptures play an important role in "Snow."

“It’s puppetry for grownups,” she said. “I think adults can walk through this. It’s mature puppetry, puppetry as art.”

In fact, the sisters said they’re hoping to tap into an emerging audience in Greater Orlando for intelligent and stimulating conceptual art.

“We’re hoping we’re part of a growth spurt,” Tamara said.

“Macabre Vignettes III: Snow” will be performed tonight at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., at Urban Rethinkm 625 E. Central Boulevard. Tickets are $20 at the door.

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