Sunday, November 27, 2016

IRT evergreen: Janet Allen returns to directing 'A Christmas Carol" for the first time since 1998

The dramatic crux of this year's production of "A Christmas Carol" by Indiana Repertory Theatre occurs when the up-and-coming Ebenezer Scrooge pauses on the stairway to his lonely counting-house perch to scrutinize the ring his distraught fiancee Belle has just returned to him.
Ghostly tours of his life behind him, Ebeneezer Scrooge begins to discover joy.

In that moment, Dickens' durable miser confirms his change of heart from someone alive to the fullness of his experience to a man dead to anything beyond his narrow focus on a fiercely guarded wealth he's unable to enjoy. Charles Pasternak's intense, jeweler's-loupe view — the merest moment in an opening-night performance full of revelations from a seasoned cast under the guiding hand of Janet Allen — feels like a dark parody of transubstantiation.

Like wine to Christ's blood in the rite of Eucharist, the ring changes from its symbolic promise on Belle's finger to a commodity in the fledgling businessman's grasping hand. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. When Scrooge puts on a cynicism that will last until four ghostly visits convert him, his course is set. For IRT, Ryan Artzberger once again represents the iconic skinflint suffering under visions of his past, present, and future before being delivered back to heartening experience.

At the end, this Scrooge becomes aware of his supernatural spiritual renewal in a fit of sobbing that turns into laughter. All is not lost, it dawns on him, and his outburst of silliness has been hard-earned. "Silly" is a cognate of the German word "selig," which means "blessed." Artzberger signaled the blessing Scrooge recognizes in two marvelous ways: I liked the tonelessness, the stunned, blank quality he gave to the repeated line "I don't know what to do." The Scrooge whom everyone recognized and tried to avoid on the street always knew what to do; the Christmas spirit he firmly rejected lies at the opposite pole from that steely certainty.

Even the cruel winter weather could not gain the upper hand over Scrooge, Dickens writes. In this production, it overcomes the street urchin singing "In the Bleak Midwinter," a song then taken up by the compassionate Lamplighter (Scot Greenwell), joined by an ensemble of the play's characters before the story gets under way. The vulnerability of children is immediately set in contrast to Scrooge's apparent imperviousness.

Returning to the last scene: After simple astonishment at his second chance, giddiness about his reclamation floods over Scrooge.  He praises the boy passing on the street below for the lad's direct answers to his questions; a plan has formed in Scrooge's mind to have a large turkey sent from the neighborhood poulterer to his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit (more lovable than ever in Jeremy Fisher's portrayal), and his family. The boy is the first real-life agent of Scrooge's new orientation to the world, so of course he is "delightful," "intelligent," "remarkable." The genuine buoyancy in the actor's voice put a seal of authenticity on the miser's transformation.

Allen's approach to the Tom Haas adaptation of Dickens' short novel is in some respects more direct than that of her immediate predecessor, Courtney Sale. The action seems to be placed more forward, under lighting that doesn't attempt to compete with the ubiquitous snow on the raked stage.  If I recall correctly, there is a more frequent use of trapdoors this year. The miraculous happenings are less shrouded. Stagecraft is as boldly evident as it is in, say, "Our Town."

The large frame that serves as a doorway to several interiors and the mirror in which Scrooge first encounters a vision of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, is also used — when held horizontally — as a box or a cell, briefly signaling Scrooge's confinement within his isolating mature self. The Christmas frolics of Fezziwig, the young Scrooge's  employer (Robert Neal at his most boomingly gregarious), together with the later revels at nephew Fred's, indulge more wholeheartedly in Dickensian caricature than the 2015 production. In vigorous support of them, the contributions of composer and sound designer Andrew Hopson are more pronounced.

Superstar of death metal: Goad as Marley's Ghost
A specialist in devised theater, Sale eschewed any feeling of set pieces in favor of an open flow of action amid a few refreshing anachronisms. By no means does this production lack imaginative touches, however. I've already mentioned young Scrooge's stopping to consider the returned ring's marketability. Pasternak, who also plays Scrooge's nephew Fred, makes the most of another original episode: Though the text presents Fred as relentlessly upbeat and steeped in Christmas cheer, Pasternak makes him a little edgy and argumentative in the scene in which Scrooge dismisses his nephew's Christmas invitation. I thought this worked as a legitimate way of interpreting the Scrooge-Fred dialogue. Pardon the vulgarity, but I liked the more ballsy Fred.

Charles Goad's presentation of Marley's Ghost clanked menacingly and spoke in blood-curdling tones of warning. His costuming and makeup looked straight from the tomb. The other three spirits (Emily Ristine, Milicent Wright, and Rob Johansen) were uncomplicated guides, strict teachers richly distinguished from each other, all focused on reminders and admonitions. When the Ghost of Christmas Present swept downstage and (quoting Dickens) said: "You have never seen the like of me before!" the audience responded with a laugh of recognition. It was a pure Milicent Wright moment — in her best performances, it's just how she comes across, though that
Milicent Wright as the Ghost of Christmas Present
message is usually unspoken.

So much else could be said about this show, but why risk arousing Scroogian "Bah, humbugs!" from my blog visitors? I want to suggest, however, that "A Christmas Carol" seems to me more than a seasonally specific entertainment and more than a literary classic. I see it as genuine modern myth,  with Scrooge as an outsized, unlikely hero. Writing with keen foresight into the long-term effects of the Industrial Revolution, Dickens anticipated what the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton has called the commodification of experience. Scrooge has become alienated from the truth of his own experience ("I had forgotten," he says pathetically to the Ghost of Christmas Past), with everything he cherishes reduced to mere calculation, figures in a ledger.

Most of us may not be close to Scrooge's flinty meanness, but the modern world encourages us to confer value upon our experiences, as he did, based upon what we have invested in them, what they have cost us. Dickens foresaw the danger of turning how we live into a treadmill and repository of consumption.

We have to trust that there is a different way, "A Christmas Carol" reminds us. One of the novella's most moving scenes, left out of Haas' mostly pitch-perfect adaptation,  recommends such trust. At the outset of their journey, the Ghost of Christmas Past invites Scrooge simply to step out of his apartment's second-floor window; Scrooge understandably balks. "'Bear but a touch of my hand there,' said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, 'and you shall be upheld in more than this!'"
The Ghost of Christmas Past (Emily Ristine) emerges to guide Scrooge.

Along with Tiny Tim's hope that churchgoers seeing his crutch might think of Him who healed the lame and restored sight to the blind, this is the most explicitly Christian passage in the story. Yet "A Christmas Carol" doesn't require that you subscribe to any particular belief. A myth resists literalism. It holds out resonating values each can apply in his or her own way across a wide swath of common culture. 

As the IRT production amply demonstrates, it can be fully entertaining as well as instructive to savor the benefits of not commodifying our experience. The alternative might mean sinking to the assessment of Old Joe (Goad again) in the Christmas Yet to Come scene — a receiver of stolen goods haggling with greedy scavengers over the fair price of a dead, unlamented pennypincher's personal effects.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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