If ever there were a fable for our times, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is it. Except that nowadays it would probably take more than a few supernatural visions to alter the behavior of the super-rich. To change the gluttonous ways of today’s Wall Street barons you’d need to lock them in a windowless room with Jack Bauer and let him get creative with a car battery and some jumper cables. Better yet, subject them to some true torture by making them live for a year on the income of an average American family. A few lousy specters of doom aren’t going to do it.
But Charles Dickens lived in more innocent times, back when it was possible to imagine barons of finance having a change of heart. The Guthrie Theater has been telling Dickens’s tale—in the same way, with the same set and costumes—for decades. This year, however, Joe Dowling and crew decided to mix things up by commissioning a new script from British playwright Crispin Whittell, building all-new sets and costumes, and guiding it all with the sure directorial hand of Dowling himself.
The result is a charmingly entertaining re-telling that only occasionally strays from Dickens’s all-too-familiar story. When it does deviate from the original, it's usually to inject some comic relief and freshen up Scrooge’s visions. I won’t ruin the jokes for you, except to say that Scrooge (played by Daniel Gerroll) is a more sarcastic S.O.B. than usual, and much of the play’s humor comes from his amusing irreverence. As he does when directing Shakespeare, Dowling takes small liberties in order to pepper the proceedings with laughter, even if it means sacrificing some dramatic tension here and there. Better a laugh than a lull is Dowling’s motto, so—though the play has been stretched back out to 2 hours and 15 minutes—the action bubbles along quite pleasantly.
The set is a foggy London square surrounded by pillows of snow, with Scrooge's bedroom perched above his office. Inspiration for some of the new costumes appears to have come from original illustrations for the book’s first edition, which the program notes call a vision of “marvelous excess." The most marvelously excessive of the bunch are Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (played by Bob Davis and Suzanne Warmanen), who dance around like happy gnomes along with their three daughters, who have blazing orange hair and freckles, just like their mom.
The ghosts in this version aren’t accompanied by as much fog or special effects as in years past (though the ceiling guywires do get quite a workout). As the ghost of Christmas past, Kate Eifrig glides down to the stage from the upper seats, and the jovial ghost of Christmas present (played by Nic Few) drops through the ceiling of Scrooge’s bedroom. The ghost of Christmas future is as imposing a specter of death as you’re ever going to see. And, as tradition demands, the song-and-dance set pieces all have 40 or 50 people onstage at once, bustling around in a complex choreography of choral songs and chaos.
Whether Whittell’s version has the legs to last another 20 or 30 years remains to be seen. But for now, it’s nice to see Dickens get some much-needed freshening. And if the Guthrie ever decides to do the Jack Bauer version, I'm already working on the script. In my version, I promise you, "bah humbug" isn't the only thing Scrooge screams.
A Christmas Carol continues at the Guthrie through December 30, guthrietheater.org