THEATER | Guthrie’s “Christmas Carol” plays to the peanut gallery


I’m a huge fan of Christmas. I start secretly playing Christmas music as soon as I blow out the candles in the jack-o-lanterns. I pull out my stack of holiday books and supplement those with more from the library. I have my list of must-see holiday shows, and the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol is always included. It’s always the same—for better and for worse.

a christmas carol, a play written by barbara field and directed by gary gisselman. presented through december 31 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($29-$70) and information, see

A Christmas Carol, based on the immortal novel by Charles Dickens, is now in its 34th year at the Guthrie. It is a tale of four spirits who visit the grumpy old Ebenezer Scrooge—beginning with Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley, who urges Scrooge to change his ways and begin anew. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future subsequently appear to help Scrooge understand what he needs to do.

Most of the actors in the production are returning for repeat performances, and you can tell they are comfortable with one another and with their roles. In his sixth year as Scrooge, Raye Birk is very entertaining. He effectively balances the play’s comedic moments—for example, nervously peeking through the curtains in anticipation of the arrival of the first ghost—with the story’s serious message. Michael Booth convincingly portrays Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s cowering clerk and a loving family man. The production’s technical aspects are also impressive: there were cries of surprise from several young audience members around me when thunder and lightning flashed and Jacob Marley emerged from the floor, shaking his chains of woe.

Gary Gisselman returns for his eighth year as the director of A Christmas Carol. I have seen his production three times, and he has not made many changes. At times, he relies too much on slapstick comedy to entertain the audience. A Christmas Carol has enough magic and suspense without needing to resort to broad physical humor. Certainly, Dickens’s original novel had some light moments. One line I wait for every time is when Scrooge tells Marley that he is just a figment of Scrooge’s imagination, a hallucination induced by indigestion. “There’s more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!”

Where the comedy goes overboard is when the Ghost of Christmas Present visits the Fezziwigs (Scrooge’s former employers) during their annual holiday office party. There is dancing, great merriment, and anticipation of the feast. But just as the carving knife appears, the darn turkey causes an uproar by hopping off the table; it runs around the stage several times and exits stage left. In the next scene, set on the streets of London, a mop-haired dog on a leash runs among the crowds of carolers, chasing an unfortunate soul out the same exit where the turkey disappeared. I guess the thought is that if it works once, do it again.

Despite these false notes, there are many good reasons why A Christmas Carol has been bringing audiences back to the Guthrie every year since the Ford Administration. It is the message of redemption at the play’s end that always has me smiling with tears in my eyes. “It was always said of Scrooge that he knew how to keep Christmas well. May that be truly said of all of us. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one!’”