Sunday, November 25, 2018

'A Christmas Carol' at IRT: Scrooge can hardly wait to be released from life-forged chains

The first time I saw the Indiana Repertory Theatre production of "A Christmas Carol" with Ryan Artzberger as Ebenezer Scrooge, the old skinflint's awakening to new life struck me as revelatory.

Self-made: Scrooge in his counting-house, unknowingly chained.
Back then, there was Scrooge's stunned pause as he processes the new person he has been granted the opportunity to become following the Three Spirits' visits. As much as I still cherish that image — with the giggles coming on gradually, with the casting off of long-practiced misanthropy taking on the aura of transfiguration — I welcome the quickened pace of the new production's final moments.

Under Benjamin Hanna's direction, there's something like the flicking of a switch between sobs and giggles as Scrooge seizes upon the rare good fortune of making good on what he has just learned. As seen opening night Saturday, Artzberger's Scrooge throws himself immediately into the joy of childhood freshly available to him. The transformation is more physical than I remember it, matching in ebullience its vocal expression. Scrooge says "I don't know what to do," but he really does, as he eagerly assumes his new role.

Jacob Marley's ghost offers a dire warning.
This strikes me as a persuasive change, despite my fond memory, when I recall that Charles Dickens shows us a man ripe for conversion from the Ghost of Christmas Past on. Stephenie Soohyun Park's cavorting in the role foreshadows Scrooge's at the end, a man liberated enough to roll down a snow-covered hill and, ignoring the "fourth wall," playfully toss a generous handful of the faux flakes into the front row.

What Scrooge resists is the painful vision of his life's barrenness at all three stages, not the sense of what is required of him going forward. That he readily apprehends, but the visits to his past, present, and future are necessary to flesh out the new knowledge. This production's blink-of-an-eye Scrooge conversion has had a long foreground.

The triggering Christmas Eve visit of Jacob Marley's ghost has a brief, scary epilogue (among the few things the stage production leaves out): the unwelcome vision of a restless crowd of paltry souls not able to redeem their lives' misdeeds, but condemned to a pointless, shackled afterlife. As if weighted down by mental as much as physical chains, Charles Goad in the role once again flawlessly pointed the way to the miserable path an unchanged Scrooge must follow. No wonder Scrooge is already harboring the cure for his disease.

All the cast except Artzberger is pressed into service in several portrayals.  Changes of costume and makeup are brought off as if effortlessly. The merging of scenes, with new wonders and peculiarities coming into and going out of view, is delightfully smooth. Tom Haas, whose untimely death in 1991 cut short one of several in the history of distinguished IRT artistic directorships, shored up the shifts in action by adapting the original skillfully.

Christmas Present is decked out for the season.
Narrative and dialogue flow into and out of each other, holding us spellbound. I always love to hear — it's a sensuous pleasure, like stroking fine velvet — the choral-speaking passages, the antiphonal delivery of some lines, and the original's blend of community and individuality through actual voices. Settings in Dickens notably take on personality, and the units brought into view in this show — some of them in miniature — approximate that vividness. A few well-placed traditional carols decorate Dickens' literary one.

It would be unwieldy to single out individual performances in detail, but besides Park, Goad, and Artzberger, I want to mention Scrooge's beatific, long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, as interpreted by Rob Johansen, whose double takes alone must surely reach the back row; the Christmas Present and Mrs. Fezziwig of Milicent Wright, a dependable source of Christmas cheer and vivacity at every turn; Reggie White, mainly as the buoyant, optimistic nephew Fred; and Aaron Kirby as the subtly narrowing Young Scrooge, forging the chains in life the grasping miser will eventually shatter.

What the literary scholar Harold Bloom says truly of the massive "Bleak House" applies also to what happens in the compact "A Christmas Carol" and in this production's fine realization of it. For me, the insight explains what I always find moving about the novella, one of the great moral tales of our literature: "Trauma recollects forward; every remission from it brings on tears of relief and joy."

Few among us are without some form of trauma, self-inflicted or otherwise, and from blessed periods of remission. And yes, the tears of relief and joy will sometimes be ours whenever we see or read "A Christmas Carol" and take advantage of its invitation to recollect forward. The invitation is extended at IRT through Dec. 23.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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