THEATER | “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater: God bless us every 1%

J.C. Cutler in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy Guthrie Theater.

Let's make this clear up front: the Guthrie's Christmas Carol is largely spectacle. There are zip lines, pneumatics, strobe lights, a massive backlit angel of death, and a two-story set piece that seems to move by magic. Heck, there's even an "Aerial Flight Director" listed in the program.

Spectacle is not something I take issue with, nor is it necessarily a pejorative in my book. What undermines the Guthrie's holiday pageantry, though, is the inherent schizophrenia in making a strictly-linear narrative spectacular, resulting in a show that numbs its audience with overloaded flash before frustrating us with interrupting pockets of drama. Sticking to one or the other might make for a more cohesive evening, but to shoehorn both into one show undermines the two aesthetics and never allows the production to get too far off the ground. (So to speak.)

A Christmas Carol begins with all the subtlety of a Tchaikovsky opera before throwing its audience onto the street where Scrooge lives. There's a little drama with some past-due rent and a blue dress that's far, far too short (more on that later) before we move to Scrooge and Marley HQ, where we meet Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's nephew Fred, the housekeeper Mrs. Merriweather, and, after they all leave, the seven-year-dead Jacob Marley. Marley warns his former partner that perdition in chains awaits him unless he can straighten out his one-percenter ways, with help from three ghosts. Past, Present, and Future, respectively, take Scrooge on a whirlwind tour of what-has-been and what-may-be before plunking him back into reality on Christmas morning. The former miser starts throwing his cash around town like it's going out of style, and makes a special visit to the Cratchit household with a "turkey the size of Turkey" and a second fatherhood to the wee Cratchit runt.

It's the story you likely know and love told unflinchingly true-to-source, inadvertently lent a fresh coat of paint courtesy of the Occupy movement.

To call the proceedings "dazzling" wouldn't do the thing justice. Mathew J. LeFebvre's costumes are stunning. The ghosts, obviously, get the boldest treatment (like the aforementioned Charon that is the Ghost of Christmas Future), but the mortal wardrobe is quietly impressive with wonderfully-detailed coats and dresses from a wide range of styles and statuses. Walt Spangler's set looks like a Christopher Nolan Whoville, with architectural intricacies balanced with almost-cartoonish masses of snow. The collaboration between composer Keith Thomas and sound designer Scott W. Edwards is a double-edged sword: the onstage holiday carols are superbly arranged and performed but the recorded score seems far too cinematic for the stage. Some other sound effect choices, like the Ghost of Christmas Past's twinkly-magic, edge toward outright patronizing. We get it, Tracey Maloney can freeze time.

Amidst all this spectacle, there are some fantastic performances onstage. J.C. Cutler makes for a pitch-perfect Scrooge, hitting all the right miserly notes early on and ending Christmas morning with what can only be described as "the Ebenezer jig." Kris L. Nelson and Virginia S. Burke as the Cratchits (along with their moppets) are appropriately heartbreaking, particularly when the kids run off to play outside and we see the cracks in the parents' emotional armor. John Catron as Fred, Kathryn Lawrey as the would-be Mrs. Scrooge, and Nathaniel Fuller as Scrooge's boyhood schoolmaster Mr. Sykes all provide nuanced work in the service of characters that, in lesser hands, might stay as flat as they're written. Angela Timberman's Mrs. Merriweather aims to steal the entire show, though, and will pull an audible laugh out of even the most seasoned cynic (whether holiday cynic, theater cynic, or both).

But these performances are ultimately just that: performances. The characters often exist in a vacuum, pontificating to empty space or yammering to a room of people who stay essentially as static as the scenery. The moments of what I would call "actual theater," where at least two of these wonderful performances collide, negotiate, and walk away irrevocably changed, I could count on one hand. And these relationships can't occur if they aren't written.

Crispin Whittell's adaptation of Dickens' work is both lean and tedious. Lean, in that a new situation is always ready to take over the stage and keep the play moving (and it does move); tedious, in that relatively few of these situations actually build toward anything larger, so that "movement" rarely feels like it's going anywhere. The result is a constellation of scenes with very little connective tissue holding them together. There's no crisis to the story: Scrooge will eventually wake up from this madness, and Tiny Tim will eventually be just fine. The conclusion will eventually arrive, not by sacrifice or labor or even heavy deliberation but by time simply passing. Intermission seems to take place because the play has conveniently hit the one-hour mark, not because an overarching dilemma has been clearly defined.

The heart of the issue is that A Christmas Carol is what folks call "a timeless classic." It is as rote a pageant as the Nativity Story, and the solid cast, the equally-solid tech, Joe Dowling's capable (albeit irreverently brisk at times) direction, or Joe Chvala's wonderfully crisp movement combined don't address the fact that one knows exactly how this story ends. What's more, one never fears that it may not end the way one knows it must. I'm not advocating the rewriting of Dickens's story, but I am saying the production plays at drama rather than wholeheartedly embracing it. An emotionally-abused child falls into the world of his imagination. A brokenhearted miser sees his former-wife happy and moved on. An innocent boy's life hangs in the supernatural balance. Dickens wrote some top-shelf drama here all on his own, but the audience is instead shielded from a potentially better play by some haunted-house pneumatics, large swaths of vapid dialogue, and conveyor-belt-like pacing. An entire one-act could easily be written about a tattered blue dress the audience sees in the first scene and its metaphorical importance as Scrooge's decision to place wealth over family. Here, though, it's treated as an afterthought; a nice easter egg if you happen to catch it, but no spilt milk if you don't.

Is it any wonder, then, that the play's final 20 minutes are also its strongest? The ghosts have expended their budgets and moved on, and Scrooge sprints out into the world determined to correct the damage he's done. His former victims flee at the sight of him, so Scrooge redoubles his efforts. Cutler, as an actor, is finally given playable action here, and in Scrooge's need to make the world understand who he now is the audience finally sees some messy human relationships: assumptions questioned, realizations swallowed, and some ballsy I-know-something-you-don't joke-playing. It works not for sentimental reasons but for dramatic ones, and there's nary a strobe light, booming voiceover, or trapdoor exit to be had.

If you see A Christmas Carol, you'll have a memorable, if not delightful, time (especially true for anyone under the age of 12). But you may tramp back out into the snow not feeling as full as you were hoping; it's storytelling that plays out more like connect-the-dots than bonafide journey. It's as if the opportunity to tell something of a better story was missed and, like figgy pudding, you may not be exactly sure what that something was.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet's complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you'll know who's been naughty and who's been nice.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater

11/19/2011 (All day) - 12/30/2011 (All day)

For more than 35 years audiences have treasured the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol, making it a Twin Cities tradition not to be missed.

818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415
617-377-2224

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    Christopher Kehoe's picture
    Christopher Kehoe

    Christopher Kehoe writes about theatre, sometimes for the public and sometimes for the press.