HOLIDAY SHOWS ARE strange half-breeds. They serve as cash cows for theaters, yet inevitably urge us to transcend our own material concerns. Of course, even spiritually evolved art costs money, especially collaborative forms such as theater, where money-changers are usually big funders of the temple. So when we go to see the Guthrie's revamped-from-the-ground-up rendition of A Christmas Carol, we are reminded at every turn that Dayton's has paid for this celebration of selflessness. Dayton's, which stocks its Target stores with cheaply made products assembled in East Asian backwaters. Dayton's, which unceremoniously laid off a slew of employees just before the holidays. Not satisfied with stamping its logo atop the show's advertising, the Dayton's name also slides right into the show itself, in the form of a sign carried across the stage during a market scene. Finally: product placement in Dickens!
In spite of these commercial genuflections, this thoughtful new production displays real affection and respect for the holiday classic. And I don't blame the Guthrie for taking advantage of a guaranteed hit each year--they'd be crazy not to. In fact, they deserve commendation for tinkering with a toy that, basically, wasn't broken.
Framing the back of the stage is a giant gold faux-proscenium, a surprisingly satisfying gesture in these postmodern days of wingless, curtainless stages. This version of the tale, newly adapted by Barbara Field, dispenses with Dickens as a character and thrusts us straight into a street scene where a chorus of commoners gives us the wind-up--perfect for the populist Dickens, though I wished this actor-to-audience device would have been sustained more faithfully. Throughout the play I felt simultaneously at ease with the all-too-familiar plot and never quite sure what would happen next--and there's a lot to chew on.
Questions are posed: What if hell, per Dante's lower levels, were very, very cold? What if all of us are ghosts in this play? A roast goose vanishes, and a giant cat comes calling (a rather jarring sight). The air in the theater lightens palpably during party scenes and thickens afterward, a phenomenon of skillfully created theater (and church ceremonies) that I'd forgotten. The stage itself transforms seamlessly, thanks to clever lighting and minimal decoration, from dreary office to chilly town square to cheery great hall. At times one is reminded of old black-and-white horror movies, or Bergman's Fanny and Alexander.
The child actors are intelligent rather than cutesy, and Tiny Tim says his little line as he should--innocent of cliché. The same can be said of everyone: Robert Stattel plays Scrooge with texture and humor, though he seems rather eager to change, perhaps out of fear (which may be as good a reason as any); and Stephen Pelinski, as Fred, is more savory than sweet. Most of all, we are indulged with Dickens's words. Cynics look at A Christmas Carol as a sort of annual absolution for all of us who shirk social responsibility the rest of the year. That's flawed logic. It's hardly Dickens's fault if we--funders included--haven't got the courage to take a cue from Scrooge.
Theatre de la Jeune Lune takes much greater liberties with text in its dreamy riff on Alexander Dumas's classic, The Three Musketeers. In keeping with Dumas's ethic of interpreting rather than transcribing history, this production is only loosely tethered to the book, and the players appear to compose and deconstruct it (with quill, typewriter, and soliloquy) as they go. They also debate it-- It's derivative of Cervantes! It's misogynistic! (Of course, even artists are critics.) With Barbra Berlovitz Desbois as a particularly compelling Milady, we're swept along by the story only to have it stripped before us: We are shown that a boat is held afloat by springs and weights, and an imperious child king is only a kid with glasses. The three swashbucklers are more burnt-out bachelors than romantic heroes, and the adventurism of the novel is replaced with contemplative abstraction (Stephen Epp makes a lovely and eloquent Aramis).
It's an indulgent revision, and I mean that in both a positive and negative sense: Jeune Lune's reworking serves the company's own pleasures and private meanings, which is all well and good, but the show has got to stand on its own for those of us on the other side of the lights. Whether it does depends on you. This isn't a show for those unfamiliar with the novel, or those hungry for nonstop swordplay and intrigue; it's a twilit meditation on nostalgia (which is not to say regret). But then, real adventure always contains a seed of wistfulness. The more exciting it is, the more aware we are that this glorious moment will be a memory soon enough, and forever. By the way, thanks to another of Minneapolis's harebrained schemes, Jeune Lune's wonderful theater may itself become a memory, blotted out by a baseball stadium. Years ago, a night watchman at this former furniture warehouse said he believed the structure was a portal to magic places; I'm inclined to agree. CP
A Christmas Carol runs through December 29, call 377-2224;The Three Musketeers runs through February 16, call 333-6200.