The broad morality tale at the heart of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has embodied the gratitude and altruism of the Christmas season for so long that its sociopolitical thrust has become a historical footnote. When Marley’s ghost wails, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. … The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” he is railing against the greed and short-sightedness of industrial capitalism. Like it or not, his is a kindred spirit with the Occupy movement.
Fitting, then, that the Civic should resurrect this Victorian-era story to see out 2011, albeit in its more contemporary 2008 Guthrie Theater stage adaptation.
Mark Pleasant, previously the comical Trevor Graydon in Thoroughly Modern Millie, narrates the familiar sequence of events. He also enjoys special rights of intervention: opening doors for folks like Bob Cratchit (Bryan Durbin) as they enter, or whisking little urchins out of the way of a rampaging Scrooge. In a clever method of staging, he also pulls scenery in and out of view like a cinematic wipe.
Pleasant takes a backseat for most of the post-intermission second act, when Scrooge (Thomas Heppler; recently Reg from The Full Monty) encounters the Ghosts of Christmases Present and Yet to Come.
The narrator’s limited presence in the middle stages is important because the intimacy of Scrooge’s relationship with the respective ghosts is paramount. The audience already knows the story; it’s Scrooge’s personal rebirth that we’re following. So, for our sake, Scrooge must believe in the ghosts. He has to fear and respect them. He has to feel compelled to open his wizened heart, to be moved and ultimately transformed by the didactic scenes they lay before him.
In the Civic’s production, this crucial relationship is often weakened because the ghosts are played by life-sized and larger-than-life-sized puppets, which are in turn voiced and controlled by puppeteers in full view of the audience. These creations of local artist Patrick Treadway (himself a regular on the Interplayers stage) are imaginative and visually impressive — not least the Ghost of Christmas Present, who dispenses puffs of fairy dust from his goblet — but they emote no more than department store mannequins. Many will find themselves watching the black-clad puppeteers instead of the puppets for histrionic cues like facial expressions.
The auditory soup of some scenes didn’t help. Music, narration, dialogue, incidental bustling, and choral singing took place all at once, all at the same volume. This might be identified and corrected in subsequent shows, but the opening performance wore it like one of Marley’s chains.
The Civic has a consistent knack for finding superb leads, and Heppler is no exception. Among this massive all-ages cast, his British accent was one of the few that sounded authentic (some actors tried, some didn’t), and despite forgetting the frailty of his character from time to time, he was thoroughly compelling in his cruelty, his anguish, his jubilation.
There are some commendable scenes in this staging of A Christmas Carol, but none so fine as when Scrooge, solitary and spotlit, wrestled with his callous misdeeds. As his former fiancee departs a Christmas ball for the last time, he shouts at his deaf younger self: “Go after her!” The mix of desperation and fury in Heppler’s voice at that moment is the sound of decades of Scrooge’s cold-hearted cynicism crumbling away. That, more than sleigh bells or carolers, is the sound of Christmas.