Imagine, if you can, an entrepreneur addressing a gathering of business owners today and stating: "Mankind -- not profit -- is our business, the common welfare is our business. Charity, mercy, and forbearance are our business." That speaker would no doubt be hooted down by the assembled titans of commerce, scorned as a wussy liberal dunderhead, and driven from their exalted presence. And yet, those words of ex-businessman and regretful dead guy Jacob Marley form the moral center of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol. Funny how a seemingly innocent yarn, set in the proper framework, can morph into political commentary.
This beloved ghost tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his mystical road trip from cheapskate to effusive lover of humanity is once again on view at the Great Lakes Theater Festival. It's a familiar annual production, originally adapted and staged by Gerald Freedman 16 years ago, and staged this year by Andrew May.
Happily, Scrooge and company seem more contemporary than ever, since Victorian England's laissez-faire approach to the indigent and Scrooge's own take ("Prisons and workhouses should suffice for the idle poor") is finding a sympathetic echo in our social-program-depleted "ownership society." Many in power now use select Bible verses to condemn others and congratulate themselves for their economic success and chest-thumping righteousness while ignoring one of the most trenchant lines from that great book: "For what is a man advantaged if he gain the whole world and lose himself?" A Christmas Carol presents the potent idea that virtues taken to extremes (Scrooge's excessive thrift) are potentially more dangerous than vices, since unexamined virtue comforts and insulates us from the problems of the world.
Presented as a story within a story, this GLTF production delivers Dickens' message via a dazzling array of stage effects -- including disappearing gravestones, towering and ominous apparitions, and so much fog that you're likely to leave the theater with wrinkle-free clothes -- but it doesn't quite explicate the personal struggle that Scrooge must endure before his rebirth as a man of generosity. Seen through the eyes of young Master William, a member of the Cleaveland (ahem) family, the plot unfolds as members of the boy's affluent household take on the roles in Dickens' work, including himself as Tiny Tim and the snarky butler as evil Ebenezer.
Sporting a Krusty the Clown hairdo, Dudley Swetland as Scrooge once again reprises his rendition of the ultimate miser, spitting out a world-class "Bah, humbug!" While the malevolent old coot can make his below-minimum-wage employee Bob Cratchit jump out of his skin with an idle comment, Swetland's Ebenezer is never forced to fully engage with the terror of changing one's personality. As he's passed on from one spectral presence to another, this Scrooge basically becomes a passive observer, rather than a deeply flawed human being who is battling to hold on to the very flaws that have kept him alive, lo, these many decades. It's this struggle between the comfort of the known versus the fear of change that keeps many of us entrenched in the status quo throughout adulthood. And it's this conflict that should stoke the rush of joy and relief when Scrooge finally casts aside his craven ways and giddily embraces humanity, one needy but deserving person at a time.
Even though that dimension of the story is given short shrift, director May has mounted a handsome production, featuring a number of outstanding performances. Tom Ford is a quivering mass of jelly as Bob Cratchit when at work, yet his ethical strength shines through in his scenes at home with his loving family. As Marley, Lynn Robert Berg is a sagacious guide for Scrooge's time travels, when the mega-materialist is forced to confront Want and Ignorance as genuine threats and not as sterile line items on society's dusty ledger. Handling the narration with maternal aplomb, Laura Perrotta anchors the proceedings with grace. But Tiny Tim (played at different performances by Ethan Fitz and Aric Generette Floyd) is more prop than fully realized character in this adaptation, which also tends to mute the emotional trajectory of the story.
One of the undeniable stars of this evening is the eye candy created by scenic designers John Ezell and Gene Emerson Friedman, along with sumptuous 19th-century costumes designed by James Scott. The warmth of the cozy family scenes and the gay shop windows are juxtaposed with the cold, black emptiness of Scrooge's chamber, which serves as the portal to terrors that lie just beyond conscious thought. If only present-day Scrooges of all stripes had to face their demons in such stark circumstances, perhaps we could return to a time when compassion was more than an empty political buzzword and the wish for "Peace on Earth" was not so infuriatingly ironic.
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