Sunday, November 29, 2015

'A Christmas Carol' at IRT displays imaginative elan, underlines its moral lesson

The rude thump of a heavy walking stick interrupts a flash-mob-like rendition of a Christmas carol to start off Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol."

On opening night Saturday, it had the intended startling effect — a real one for the audience and me, a well-rehearsed one for the carolers divided by the frosty approach of Ebenezer Scrooge. He strides without speaking through the stunned singers on the way to his office.
Bah! Humbug!: Scrooge casts a disdainful eye at Christmas.

The arresting opening scene places the mean-spirited miser in a social context, where we will not see him again in his real self until his conversion near the end, after guided visions by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Scrooge famously learns from those visits — a posthumous gift thrust upon him by a miserable ghost, his deceased business partner — the personal benefits of charity.

Among our traditional carols, the interrupted "Good King Wenceslas" most vividly lifts up the blessings of charitable works, whose purpose is lost on Scrooge. Immediately, then, the audience can ponder the heavy soul work that lies ahead. Courtney Sale directs the production with a liberating style, getting to the moral and fantastic essentials of the story.

 IRT's signature element on the raked set — that lovely snow, both falling and fallen — is played with, as well as walked through and brushed off. Handfuls are tossed at the audience now and then, the rehabilitated Scrooge flops down in it to make snow angels, and it's imaginatively put to use as the components of the Cratchit family's joyous, hard-won feast.

Dickens' language is intact, its distinctive, emotionally charged narrative rhetoric faithfully preserved in Tom Haas' adaptation. The story moves forward through choral-speaking passages and solo narrative asides, in addition to dialogue. Most actors play several roles and move set-pieces and props in and out of place. Further displaying her freedom from realism, Sale has her cast not only steering clear of London accents, but also following the tonal contours of Midwestern American. And as the play progresses, there are several "bro hugs" at moments that exceed Victorian notions of propriety, but fit dramatically.

There is plenty of delightful filigree, as well as more poignant touches, along the way: Robert Neal's "portly gentleman," his request for a charitable contribution having been rebuffed by the miserly Scrooge, rolls his eyes in disbelief at the approach
The Spirit of Christmas Present encompasses jollity and dread.
of the repentant miser. Constance Macy's "plump sister" at nephew Fred's party sits down at the piano, turning to chortle self-consciously before playing. The break-up scene between Belle (Eliza Simpson) and Young Scrooge (Will Mobley) is insightfully staged; the couple is never on the same level, matching their temperamental disparity.

The three Spirits drive home their crucial points in effecting Scrooge's change of heart. For the first time, a youth (Grayson Molin) is cast as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Dickens' description of this character is unrealizable even with today's stage magic (a department in which IRT excels), so the choice here is an apt interpretation, since scenes of Scrooge's early life are recapitulated during this visit. David Alan Anderson enjoys a reprise of his hearty portrayal of the Spirit of Christmas Present.

Marley's ghost wears the chains he forged in life.
Chuck Goad, a former IRT Scrooge, has never looked and sounded better (read: worse, but in the best sense) as Marley's Ghost. His dire admonitions to his business partner would soften a heart of stone. And that, indeed, is their job.

Ryan Artzberger's Scrooge does more than snarl before his transformation; he sometimes sets forth his views offhandedly and with flashes of wit, making his dismissive anger all the more vivid in contrast.

The first time I saw him play Scrooge, I was struck by how completely the character was overcome by the realization he had not missed the opportunity to celebrate Christmas properly. "I don't know anything," Scrooge exclaims. "I'm quite a baby." And Artzberger as Scrooge was suddenly another person, "beside himself" in the New Testament phrase reflecting the misplaced concerns of Jesus' friends about him. In this production, Scrooge's giddiness persists to the very end. "Beside himself" gets it.

I confess that Artzberger's arid, wheezy giggle became slightly tiresome before the final "God bless us all, everyone!" My naughty self said: "I could almost do with a bit of the old Scrooge about now." But my less naughty self saw the wisdom of hitting Scrooge's transformation hard.

Ebenezer Scrooge, whose very name is a reflection of Dickens' genius, is one of those rare fictional characters who have become myths, along with Huckleberry Finn, Sir John Falstaff, and a few others. A mythical character is large enough to shape and reflect our values (including the ones we are reluctant to acknowledge) as well as to represent a fascinating, three-dimensional person.

Through Scrooge, both as himself and "beside himself," "A Christmas Carol" is an affirmation of hope — the meaning of the season at its most abstract and powerful. Though Dickens wraps things up in a tidy Christmas bow at the end, it is useful to take Scrooge's vow to "keep Christmas" as a promise whose permanence lies beyond the story.

The Cratchits sit down at Christmas, sustained by love, driven by hope.
Just as love sustains the Cratchit family, wonderfully filled out in this production as headed by Joshua Coomer and Jennifer Johansen, hope drives them forward day after difficult day. Dickens understood hope  as mankind's ultimate resource, though he knew it could be destroyed by Want and Ignorance, forsaken children who creep zombielike from under the robes of the Spirit of Christmas Present.

In the essay "Of Names," Michel de Montaigne exclaims: "Oh, what a brave faculty is hope, which in a mortal subject and in a moment, usurps infinity, immensity, eternity!"

That brave faculty thus rivals some of the attributes of God in "A Christmas Carol," and the IRT  production buoyantly endorses its power and spiritual resonance.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]