The Guthrie Theater's A Christmas Carol has long hovered between a holiday tradition and a holiday chore—a part of the season that seems closer to the eternally passed-along fruitcake rather than a delectable holiday gift. There were always highlights (Raye Birk's mad-scientist Scrooge of recent years, for example), but the whole production, which featured elements that went back decades, just felt tired.
Maybe it felt that way to the Guthrie as well, because 2010 brings us a brand-new vision of the tale, one that streamlines the action and brings the audience closer to the societal inequities that underlie the story.
In Crispin Whittell's new adaptation, we're up and running after some quick scene-setting. The biggest change is immediately present—there are no narrators leading us along. Instead, we get right into the action. As played by Daniel Gerroll, Scrooge sports a hard-edged cynicism to hide the spiritual void in his heart. He turns people out of their homes on Christmas Eve, counts his money while charities ask for aid, and berates poor Bob Cratchit to the point of breaking.
Minutes later, Scrooge is visited by Marley, and then the ghosts come to take him on his journey through Christmases past, present, and yet to come. We see the cold foundation of Scrooge's life at school and work and observe as his burning desire to be a financial winner destroys his one chance for love with his beloved Belle. Unlike past productions, there's no Jacob Marley here guiding Scrooge to the dark side. His rejection of Belle comes from his own cold, dark heart.
Gerroll gives us a different look at Scrooge. His leading-man looks aren't hidden behind makeup or crazed wigs. This is no cartoon, but a calculating man of business going about his life oblivious to the pain he leaves in his wake. Even at the sight of the ghost of Marley or the spirits of Christmas, Gerroll retains his cynical poise. It is not until the heartbreak with Belle that his facade starts to form cracks, which are intensified by the fate of Tiny Tim, and then finally crumbles when he is faced with the empty, wasted years of his own life.
The production threatens to break down at the end, when the streamlining forces all the action into the home of the poor Cratchits, who are, at first, justifiably horrified by the appearance of Scrooge and then a gaggle of celebrants at their door. That is followed by a return of all the characters, which makes you wonder if Scrooge, rather than being giddy as a schoolboy, is mad as a hatter.
That aside, Joe Dowling directs with a steady hand, giving the audience some sly humor along the way. The new design is striking, especially the massive, winged specter of Christmas Yet to Come. And the ensemble, made up of many Twin Cities veterans, performs well from beginning to end.
THE GUTHRIE'S A Christmas Carol plays a role in The Harty Boys Save Christmas, the broad-stroked parody from Joshua English Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen now playing at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. As part of a nefarious plot to destroy the Twin Cities' holiday celebrations, an evil lady Santa Claus plots to wreck the "900th" production of the seasonal favorite.
That would be disastrous, as it would force folks to look to smaller theaters for their holiday theatergoing, where the actors rehearse in bedrooms and perform "in a bowling alley where the audience's view is blocked by a pole."
Like the previous Fringe hit from 2009, the new show plays it broad—the brothers (and their father) are incompetent fools who emerge on top only due the hard work of the women in their lives, long-suffering mother Lana and best chum Becca. The show takes shots not only at the Guthrie but at Macy's, the Holidazzle Parade, Twilight fans, and anything else that pings the writers' sonar.
The seven-member cast is obviously having a blast, and that fun quickly spreads to the audience. Along with the writers playing the dim-witted Harty Boys, the rest of the cast deliver delightful performances, led by Matt Rein in a variety of roles and Leslie Ball as the exasperated Lana Harty.
The show is rough around the edges (maybe a few more living-room rehearsals?) but makes up for that in pure energy, be it a silent library conversation using only book titles or a final, slow-motion rocket attack on the boys by the Evil Santa.