A Christmas Carol hits and misses at the Guthrie
It didn't take long for the Guthrie's lean re-creation of A Christmas Carol to start gathering a layer of fat, like a Victorian gentleman overindulging throughout the holiday season. While still nowhere as heavy as some of the past creations, Crispin Whittell's version is beginning to lose focus on Charles Dickens's original message about heart, humanity, and redemption.
In the spirit of Christmas, I won't dwell on these pitfalls. Instead, here are the positives. J.C. Cutler takes the reins of Ebenezer Scrooge with absolute aplomb, finding fresh space for his personal interpretation of the famous miser. In Cutler's hands, Scrooge nearly boils over in rage at the thought of Christmas, spitting out his "Bah, humbugs" as if he wanted to use a much nastier epithet but the thin veneer of civilization he adheres to prevents it. That calcified layer of rage and bitterness is very fragile, cracking as he watches his own past Christmas joys followed by the simple pleasures of his clerk and nephew. Cutler well earns Scrooge's transformation, bubbling with pure joy at his second chance.
Whittell has also turned up the humor in the play, from Scrooge's sometimes-acidic side comments to the deadpan humor of his long-suffering housekeeper, brought to life by Angela Timberman. Even the ghosts—well, the first two at least—get into the game, with Tracey Maloney's gentler charms as the past and Robert O. Berdahl's blustering present. Even poor Jacob Marley (Bob Davis) manages a few zingers at his old partner, despite being forced to walk the earth for eternity, wearing the chains he forged in life.
Despite moments like that, the humor is usually well balanced, especially in one of the center points of the play, the Cratchits. Led by Kris L. Nelson and Virginia S. Burke, the scene has the feel of a warm, well-worn ritual, of a family finding cheer in a place where the weight of economics and the illness of poor Tiny Tim would seem to make it impossible.
So director Joe Dowling and the company keep the beating hearts of the play—Scrooge's transformation and the bonds between the Cratchits—intact, but at times the added layers make it hard to find them. It's a handsomely designed set (by Walt Spangler), but some of the effects threaten to overwhelm the rest of the proceedings. When the stage fog started to spew out before Marley's appearance, I thought Kiss was making a surprise visit.
The material added or brought back for 2011 lengthens the show by about a half-hour, and also requires an intermission. It's amazing how quickly the spell that's created can dissipate when you have a chance to get a drink or stretch your legs (a backstage power outage didn't help matters opening night, as the second-act curtain was delayed by another 15 minutes). A Christmas Carol is an extended dream, shifting from nostalgia to modern-day warmth to the cold, dirty terrors that live just beneath the surface, and it works best when the audience doesn't get a chance to contemplate it in the light.
THERE'S NO DANGER of a backstage power outage during the return engagement of Comedy Suitcase's 2010 hit The Harty Boys Save Christmas, as the Bryant-Lake Bowl's "backstage" is essentially Lake Street. Even without the lights, I imagine the company could scrounge up some flashlights and carry on in this low-tech but highly delightful Christmas spoof.
Creators Joshua English Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen spin a gloriously mad story of inept brother detectives (they also play the roles) and their equally inept dad (Ari Hoptman) as they face off against the Evil Santa Lady (Karen Weiss Thompson) and her henchman (Andy Kraft, playing a number of roles), whose mad vendetta is to ruin the Twin Cities' Christmas.
How, you may ask? By destroying Macy's, the Holidazzle, and the 901st production of A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie. Helping the boys—well, doing the actual work—are mom Lana (Leslie Ball) and a girl chum (Sulia Altenberg), whose real-world clarity can't penetrate the weird worldview of the boys.
It's all charmingly low-budget, with the Ghosts of Christmas showing up wearing white bed sheets and Evil Santa Lady's rocket launcher clearly being made of a cardboard tube covered in silver duct tape. That puts the focus on the show's zingers (at suburbanites, the commercialized Christmas, and—quite definitely—the Guthrie) and on the leads' physical comedy, which ends with a chase out the door onto Lake Street.
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