Spark your holiday spirit with IRT's creative version of 'Carol'

November 24, 2008
"A Christmas Carol" has an albatross of familiarity around its neck as solid as Jacob Marley's chains. Most of us have seen the story through dozens of variations, whether featuring earnest Mickey Mouse or mocking Michael Moore. Henry Winkler Americanized it, Barbie doll-ified it, and Albert Finney musicalized it (thank you very much). Jim Carrey is next in line, with a 3-D film due out this time next year.

What could possibly be fresh or surprising in a show that the Indiana Repertory Theatre has been staging since before Unigov? (OK, not quite. But sure seems that way.)

Further, the IRT's production has crept up into mid-November, monopolizing the mainstage for month and a half. No matter what the quality shouldn't Scrooge's tale be quarantined along with the assortment of "Nutcrackers" into December?

There. I've satisfied my inner Scrooge.

The beauty — one of the many — of this production of "A Christmas Carol" is that it doesn't treat the well-known story as a cash cow. Think of how easy it would be to take advantage of this audience magnet and cheapen the production. Surely the company, offering the Tom Haas adaptation of Dickens for the 18th time, could get away with hiring a second-rate cast rather than some of the city's finest actors and pros from beyond our borders.

And surely those actors could find ways to cut corners as they go through the past, present and future motions. (Actors may grumble backstage about the crazy schedule, but their attitude doesn't show up on stage.)

The IRT's take on the show, in case you are among the uninitiated handful, is anchored by snow.

Covering the stage, it's a blanket both oppressive and purifying. Its ubiquity accentuates Bob Cratchit's work conditions and Tiny Tim's vulnerability. And its gentle falling makes for beautiful stage images.

Which doesn't mean that this isn't a scary story. Dickens and the IRT creative team led by director Priscilla Lindsay don't mask the fact that this world is a terrifying place, with or without the undead traipsing about. Despite his chains, Jacob Marley (Mark Goetzinger) still seems pained by his actions on Earth. This one-foot-still-among-the-living quality connects him closer to Scrooge. And that works, making Scrooge seem just a slip and fall away from joining his former partner in tormented afterlife.

The second act visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future takes the show into full-out creepy mode. Costumed by Murell Horton, the spirit comes from the grim reaper school, but with a strong hint of Edward Gorey's scythe-wielder from the classically morbid book "The Gashlycrumb Tinies." Only this one cracks a mean whip.

The only time the dark magic is lost is when a too-obvious (and symbolically confusing) prop body is torn apart.

Despite the marketing toward families, its most moving moments are grown-up ones: Robert K. Johansen's familial love as Cratchit, the layer-after-layer peeling back of Scrooge's defenses (Charles Goad continues to grow in the role after 10 seasons) and many subtle grace notes from a worthy supporting cast, including Lynne Perkins and Robert Neal as the Fezziwigs, Brian Noffke as the Young Marley and Alan Schmuckler as the stocking-footed Ghost of Christmas Past.

A particular pleasure this time around is Gwendolyn Whiteside as both Scrooge's sister, Fan, and as his intended, Belle (have at it, psych majors). In IRT's "Our Town," Whiteside's impossible to suppress spirit nearly undermined the show. Here, that same quality adds considerably. The life she brings to every moment makes painfully clear that Scrooge didn't just lose a generic Victorian woman. He lost someone special. That loss, accentuated in a delicately, beautifully staged moment when the elderly Scrooge cuts in to replace his former self, renders the Christmas Past sequences heartbreaking.

Scrooge's wake-up doesn't have the forward motion that the story would seem to demand. On the other hand, the climax is perfectly in keeping with the elegance and tone of the rest of the show. The IRT's "Carol" is less about momentum and more about primal matters. It's a show that embraces the terror, the joy, the loss and the humor of being human. It's about the shaking up of a man who has forgotten that evil doesn't come from sudden changes. It comes from compromise after compromise, rationalization after rationalization.

All of this comes through in IRT's creative and clear rendering of the story.

If you've seen it so many times that you can't enjoy its wonders, consider taking a break. If you haven't seen it recently, go and spark your spirit.
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