Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A Christmas Carol
Set designer Walt Spangler's wintry Victorian streetscape with two-story residence/counting houses and Mathew J. LeFebvre's period costumes are impressive, and serve to underscore the stark class divisions at the heart of Dickens' novella. Scott Edwards' sound design is textured throughout and he creates exquisite balance between Jacob Marley's thunderous warnings, a small child's softly sung ballad, and the surging harmonies of the street carolers.
Chvala is wonderful at bringing out the dark strains of the play, but for me the highlight is his choreography. The extended dance sequence that takes place during Mr. Fezziwig's party is a true showstopper. Chvala's terrific cast is led by J. C. Cutler, who conveys Ebenezer Scrooge's trajectory from penny-pinching misanthrope to warm and cuddly teddy bear with great subtlety. It's particularly fun to watch him get downright goofy in his post-conversion scenes. Robert Berdahl is appropriately creepy as Jacob Marley, and Summer Hagen displays her expert comic timing as Mabel. Kris Nelson is heartbreaking as Scrooge's much abused clerk Bob Cratchit, but the real standout in this show is Meghan Kreidler as Mrs. Cratchit. In a richly layered performance, Kreidler shows us a woman desperate to protect her husband's spirits while struggling to manage the agony of watching her youngest child waste slowly away. The 30 or so gifted performers who make up the ensemble bring great passion and commitment to the production, and the enjoyment expressed in the festive parts of the story is infectious.
Chvala's gestures to parallels with current injustices, through stark images of homeless beggars and frightened, half-starved urchins, are dramatically effective. But I think he is correct not to try to push the parallels too far. When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, during the economic depression of 1834, it had not yet dawned on him that exploitation might be embedded in institutions, which is one reason why the story is not nearly as pessimistic as works like Hard Times and Bleak House. The novella critiques only the excesses of laissez faire economics, not the structures themselves. Dickens insists that Scrooge hurts the economy by refusing to circulate his wealth. But he mainly seems to argue that the wealthy and privileged needed to show much greater generosity and benevolence toward the less fortunate of society. Scrooge is uncharitable, but he's not the Wolf of Wall Street or Gordon Gekko. As adapter Crispin Whittell take pains to show, the famous curmudgeon is as stingy with himself as he is with others. He lives in a cold, sparsely decorated room on the upper floor of his counting house, depriving himself of any creature comforts. Crispin emphasizes Dickens' interest in the psychological underpinnings of acquisitiveness, a feature of the novella that lends itself readily to stage adaption. Whittell wisely structures the play around the question of how Scrooge came to be Scrooge. How did his heart come to be so hard?
Partly, Scrooge was damaged by a childhood that included emotional abuse, severe deprivation, and a succession of personal tragedies. Despite all this, Ebenezer grows into a decent young man, as we see when the ghost of Christmas Past (Tracy Maloney) takes him back to a time when he was capable of expressing kindness and fellow-feeling and of enjoying a really fabulous Christmas party. It is only after he gets engaged to his soul mate Belle (Tatiana Williams) that his obsession with financial security sets in. He worries that unless he can save a great deal of money, he (like his father) will not be able to protect his future family from financial catastrophe. Greed has various sources and takes various forms. Scrooge's is an expression of risk-aversion. Belle recognizes how fear has warped Ebenezer's perception but cannot help him; she walks away. Scrooge spends the rest of his life trying to build a wall of money around his painright up until the point when Jacob Marley's ghost appears and scares the living daylights out of him.
Facing one's losses as well as the mistakes one has made along the way isn't easy. Scrooge can't do it on his own. He requires a mediumor, rather, severalto shake him out of his paralysis and make him aware of what he's become, so that he can become who he truly is. He's delighted to discover that he is not only naturally benevolent and compassionate but also still very capable of enjoying a party.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, adapted by Crispin Whittell, is being performed through December 30, 2016, at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. To order tickets or for further information, visit www.guthrietheater.org or call the box office at 612-377-2224 or toll-free at 1-877-447-8243.
Directed by Joe Chvala