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Christmas With the Crank

Everybody does A Christmas Carol, but nobody gets it right.

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A Christmas Carol

Goodman Theatre

A Christmas Carol

Provision Theater Company

at the Chopin Theatre

A Christmas Carol: A Radio Broadcast

The Hypocrites

at the Athenaeum Theatre

When A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, Charles Dickens's popularity and finances were in decline for the first time in his career. Serialized chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit, the novel he was writing at the time, were roundly panned and selling poorly. He had just returned from his first tour of America, where he issued numerous proclamations about the general grossness of American culture and manners, thereby souring an enormous potential market for his work. His financial woes were the hottest gossip in London. Dickens needed money. Scrooge provided it.

But Dickens's revered novella wasn't just a potboiler, nor was it the saccharine, nostalgic piece of heartwarming family entertainment that's usually presented today on stages and screens. More than anything, Dickens was voicing his moral outrage at contemporary British society. He spent much of late 1843 lecturing on the squalid conditions of England's poor and their lack of education in particular. In Manchester, where he was speaking on these subjects to a working-class audience, he began to imagine the allegorical figures of Want and Ignorance—the horrifying children who emerge from the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Dickens understood their namesakes, growing up in the squalor of Camden Town just like the Cratchits; Tiny Tim's impending doom wasn't melodrama to Dickens, who watched two siblings die at an early age. Inspired, he wrote the novella in a fury, locking himself away for lengthy sessions. When he finished the manuscript in less than two months, by his own account he "broke out like a madman" into the streets, much the way Scrooge does at the end of his story.

George Orwell once called Dickens's characters monstrosities, and A Christmas Carol has some of his most effective ones. Ebenezer Scrooge, the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner," is the most obvious example, and the shrouded, silently menacing Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and the horrifying ghost of Jacob Marley (whose jawbone falls off after he removes a bandage from his head) are also well-known. Dickens's portrayal of the unmitigated creepiness of the Ghost of Christmas Past is less familiar: a strange fusion of child and old man, he has a blazing light shining from the top of his head and an ability to shape-shift, becoming "now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body."

That sense of the grotesque, which G.K. Chesterton called one of the defining elements of Christmas stories, occupies every corner in the book. The London fog on Christmas Eve is so thick that it "came pouring in at every chink and keyhole," making the houses across from Scrooge's countinghouse appear as "mere phantoms." The bell in the church tower strikes "as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head." The boiling potatoes in Mrs. Cratchit's pot knock "loudly at the saucepan lid to be let out and peeled." Even the prize turkey that the reformed Scrooge buys for the Cratchits is so huge it couldn't have stood on its own legs but "would have snapped them short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax."

Nearly everything in the book is a pointed distortion, and such dramatic extremes tend to thrill theater artists—especially in a scenery-chewing theater community like Chicago's. So it's mystifying that both the Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol—the city's most popular and well-financed staging of the tale—and the bare-bones production by the upstart Provision Theater are such friendly, well-behaved affairs, careful to spare their audiences any genuine sense of the intensity of Scrooge's ordeal. Imagine being forced to go back in time to not only watch yourself ruining the one real love affair you've ever had, but to then see your beloved happily married to somebody else—and chatting with him about how lonely and miserable you ended up. In the book, the "relentless" Ghost of Christmas Past has to physically grab Scrooge and compel him to watch this. Nothing in either production brings Scrooge anywhere near such an emotional precipice.

Part of the problem is that both the Goodman's Scrooge (William Brown) and Provision's (Brad Armacost) share a fundamental misunderstanding of their character. Brown's Scrooge is a psychologically realistic grouch, and he does offer some satisfying moments of sensitivity during the play's final scene; Armacost's Scrooge is more extreme, scowling and skulking when he's not barking rebukes at everyone around him. But both give their Scrooges hair-trigger personalities, forgetting that the old man (probably in his late 50s) has been hardening for a good four decades. In the book, Scrooge is so confident in his worldview that he spends most of his time spouting mean-spirited and well-rehearsed jokes about the idiotic revelers around him; he rarely feels compelled to argue or shout. But in both productions Christmas is a fresh wound to Scrooge, and he acts far too engaged with a world of fools that, realistically, he would have long since forsaken. Scrooge isn't a man so deeply and thrillingly misanthropic that his "reclamation," as the Ghost of Christmas Past puts it, is the stuff of legend. He's just an ordinarily unpleasant guy.

Tim Gregory, the director and coadapter of the Provision production, ups the number of explicit Christian references in the story, but with that exception his adaptation and Tom Creamer's for the Goodman are remarkably similar. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a pretty young woman rather than a creepy man-baby, live musicians provide occasional accompaniment, Marley's voice runs through a lot of reverb, the cast sings a perfunctory "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" at the end. Both shows even have Scrooge's maid swigging from a flask. The main differences are matters of production values. At the Goodman, ghosts fly on wires, Marley appears in a flash of blinding light before he's sucked into a red glowing abyss, and entire sets are rolled on and off the stage; in Provision's production, ghosts travel by foot, and cast members move the props themselves during set changes. But in neither case is there any real terror or pathos. Both shows play equally nice and are equally unwilling to engage the text on its own terms. Certainly, such genteel entertainment is what audiences want from their family outings this time of year. But it's worth remembering that A Christmas Carol is more Edward Gorey than Currier & Ives. Dickens's moral outrage has been buried under the familiar festive warmth.

For the Hypocrites' A Christmas Carol: A Radio Broadcast, Sean Graney's adaptation throws together a college radio DJ, a drunken voice-over actor, four dreadfully perky hack actresses (the Impassioned Women's Amateur Drama Club), and a pissy queen to tell Dickens's tale on the radio. In one inspired moment Charlie (Carmen Aiello), the actor playing Scrooge—who couldn't give two figs about the radio play, because his boyfriend just broke up with him and all men are dogs anyway—tosses his script aside and launches into a furious deconstruction of the text. Scrooge, he argues, grew up poor and had an abusive childhood, but he worked hard to pull himself up, and maybe he believed having money would make people like him; thanks to the four spirits' campaign of fear and intimidation, he's forced to give up his convictions to become bland and normalized. Why, Charlie wonders, do Americans fawn over this socialist parable about wealth redistribution when Christmas is the most consumer-oriented time of the year? "No one sees the hypocrisy," he growls. "All they do is cheer 'Yay Christmas!'"

His blistering monologue is a welcome tonic. Its ideas should have formed the core of the production instead of being relegated to an outburst three-quarters of the way into the show. Until that point, Graney's adaptation is a straightforward lampoon of Dickensian melodrama and bad radio acting—both easy targets. Director Halena Kays and her savvy cast squeeze a good deal of hilarity from the limited material, but by the time the actors reach the show's faux intermission and everyone's reduced to bumbling through an intentionally terrible version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," it's clear the show's run short of ideas; and the final reclamation of Charlie, who magically becomes uncranky toward the end, is unconvincing. The Hypocrites make an admirable effort to shake up the oft-told tale, but the adaptation needs meatier ideas throughout to be a worthwhile foil to the never-ending pageant of ossified Carols.

A Christmas Carol

When: Through 12/26: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 6:30 PM, Tues 7:30 PM, Wed-Thu noon and 7:30 PM. Holiday schedule varies; call for information.

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Price: $20-$60

Info: 312-443-3800 (TTY 312-443-3829) or www.goodman-theatre.org

A Christmas Carol

When: Through 12/23: Wed 11 AM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM. Holiday schedule varies; call for information.

Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

Price: $25 adults, $18 children 12 and under, $20 per person with groups of ten or more

Info: 773-506-4429 or www.provisiontheater.org

A Christmas Carol: A Radio Broadcast

When: Through 1/2: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM. Holiday schedule varies; call for information.

Where: Athenaeum Theatre, second-floor studio theater, 2936 N. Southport

Price: $12-$15

Info: 312-902-1500 or www.the-hypocrites.com

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Bridges, Michael Brosilow.

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