Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Christmas Carol/A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol

As I settled down in the warmth of the Indiana Repertory Theatre and got ready for A Christmas Carol on a frigid Sunday night, I realized that I have very little experience with the story. I'd never seen it on stage, I don't know that I've ever actually read it, and my film experience is limited to some late 70s/early 80s animation (After some online research, I think my mind might be creating some odd mash-up memories based on Mickey's Christmas Carol and The Stingiest Man In Town.) and two minutes of Scrooged -- the part where he wants to staple antlers on mice or something like that. Somehow I managed to grow up in rural Americana and still escape much of the media saturation of holiday sentimentality. (Admission of guilt: I've also never seen It's A Wonderful Life and have only seen A Christmas Story once, well over a dozen years ago. I'm telling you, if it wasn't animated, lil' Paul didn't have much to do with it.)

Yet I have managed to pick up the distaste for the idea of A Christmas Carol -- the sickly sweet sound of a crippled boy raining blessings upon every one that seems to peal across stage and screen this time of year. So I was determined, going into my first experience, to at least try to find the lasting appeal beneath the sentimental; this is Dickens, after all, there's gotta be more than just happy sappy life lessons. Turns out I picked a good production to start out that train of thought -- IRT's Christmas Carol, while telling the traditional Dickens tale, does so in a way that emphasizes the theatricality of the production, rather than opting for the good ol' sawhorse of realism. Set on a field of snow, set pieces are wheeled in and out, dropped from the flies, and are pulled up from under the snow or a number of trap doors. It creates a very ensemble heavy show, a virtue that allows the storytelling to take center stage. And Dickens being Dickens, the storytelling is, of course, where the real redemption lies.

I had forgotten that this is a story about a man. Not of life lessons and behavioral 180s and god blessing the top to the bottom (although those things each play their part), but of one man and the very particular reasons that have brought him to the point of detachment that he now embodies. As we look on, Dickens shows us Scrooge not ruing the decisions he has made, but actually acknowledging and taking stock of them -- in many cases seemingly for the first time. At the IRT, this is well served by Charles Goad, who provides a bit of humor to pre-ghost Scrooge. Yes, he's a crabby old man, but he's a crabby old man who we need to feel an attachment for, and Goad's slightly relaxed clip gives us that entry point.

It is A Christmas Carol, which means it is a moneymaker, which means it is an audience piece, so the whole thing played out more or less as expected (within the inventive adaptation, of course), but it was nice to know that I could come out of one of the biggest chestnuts of all without wanting to tear my hair, and it was a good refresher course on the original (who knew that Mickey was leaving bits out -- Ignorance and Want, the whole Sister Fan death thing -- actually, everyone but me probably knew....), a reminder that there's a reason this story has stuck around for a while, no matter what it may have become in some instances.


It was a good thing I had that refresher course, too, because the Neo-Futurists weren't waiting for no stragglers. A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol holds few ties to Dickens original story and those present are frequently tenuous. I suppose that is exactly what I should have expected from the Neo-Futurists, but not having a long history with the story, I was desperately hanging on for even the most fleeting recognition for a while at the beginning. Once I gave up and let go, things got much easier. I still, shame of shames, haven't been to Too Much Light, but this was something that, in my head, looks similar to TML: Holiday Edition. Which is cool and all, there were some great bits: a flour/water/dance Christmas Past piece that had me wavering between joy and tears, some bracingly honest on stage audience Q & A, a send-up of the Christmas goose tradition. But when Bilal Dardai towards the close of the show explains that the real undercurrent is that Scrooge could have learned the lessons he learned at any time during the year, I was on board -- there was the appeal I was looking for. There was the way in to this whole Christmas Carol phenomenon. But things swerved giddily back to overdone and larger than life Christmas immediately after, and by that time I was left wondering what the bother was. Of course, that was the whole point of what the Neos were doing, but that awareness didn't make the gaudiness of contemporary Christmas any less empty.


Here's the rest of the line-up for '08, so's you all know what you got coming to ya. Friday was Annoyance's Co-Ed Prison Sluts (now there's a holiday classic) and Saturday was Remy Bumppo's The Marriage Of Figaro. Next week, I've got Writer's The Maids on Monday and Chicago dell'Arte's A Commedia Christmas Carol on Tuesday. Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas! I'll be back before the New Year to spread some more good cheer.



Anonymous said...

For as much as I detest the Christmas season, Dicken's A CHRISTMAS CAROL really gets to me. The novel is great, and I can only imagine how terrifying and scathing it must have been upon its publication. In 1839, half of all London funerals were for children under 10 dying of diseases contracted primarily at workhouses. Check out this line from the novel when the ghost of Christmas Present reveals two ghastly feral-like children to Scrooge:

"This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

Brilliant. Do yourself a favor and read the novel next Christmas. You'll be glad you did.


Kerry said...

My favorite stage version of A Christmas Carol is from San Francisco's Theatre of Yugen, who did A Noh Christmas Carol for several years. In addition to very cool bunraku puppets for Want and Ignorance, the story also included a coda where Marley's Ghost, covered in paper chains, comes back at the end, and Scrooge unwinds the chains and sets him free. (This was before I saw Tom Mula's "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol," which also includes redemption for Marley at its center.) That moment always had me in tears -- just a silent ritual between the two old friends.