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If you’re going to insist on staging A Christmas Carol, you really ought to stage it with as much style as the folks at Ford’s Theatre have. Newly installed producing director Paul Tetreault has banished the house’s notorious holiday staple—a stale sugarplum of a show, all fusty Victorian frippery and sticky musicalized sentimentality—and he delivers in its place a witty, design-conscious Dickens that above all demonstrates a real regard for what makes theater theater. Bless him, everyone.
Note, please, the “if” clause atop that last paragraph. I don’t want anyone to think I’ve been overcome by the wassail already; in fact, I muttered enthusiastically along at the outset, as Martin Rayner’s Scrooge delivered his prescription for Christmas-happy idiots. (They should be boiled with their own puddings, should you have forgotten, and buried with a stake of holly through their hearts.)
And I’m certainly not prepared to argue that Beckett fans will want to skip the annual bah-humbug bash in hopes of rediscovering their inner urchin. A Christmas Carol is still a Christmas card, not a character-driven story, and nobody’s likely to have an Aha! moment when Ford’s adorably towheaded Tiny Tim warbles “What Child Is This?” Michael Wilson’s script introduces a smidgen of psychological complexity to the familiar tale, it’s true, but the show still pauses pretty regularly to whack the audience soundly about the head and shoulders with its message.
And yet. That message, for one thing, is a little less about how the charm of a season can work a miracle, a little more about the importance of being engaged with the world. (It’s a notion even Beckett might have endorsed.) Where the story usually whisks Scrooge from his countinghouse to the underheated manse where Marley (Michael Goodwin) & Co. wait to teach him a lesson, Wilson takes the old skinflint on a stroll through the streets of London, rendered for Ford’s as a kind of three-story Snow Village, each towering frosted-gingerbread building rotating out from behind the wall of Scrooge’s warehouse, windows warmly lit, as though designer G.W. Mercier had spent last Christmas reading from Robert Sabuda’s marvelous all-white pop-up books. Along the way, Scrooge stops to put the squeeze on a trio of pushcart vendors, and if you’re wondering why anyone would introduce three new characters to an already stuffed stocking of a tale, let’s just say that one of ’em (a pert Alix Elias) sells antique dolls; another (an expansively warm Jeorge Watson) focuses on the moment, marketing a veritable cornucopia of foodstuffs; the third—well, Carlos Gonzales’ bewhiskered, blusteringly avuncular clock vendor is something of a futurist, an inventor tinkering with steam-powered doodads that he’s convinced will, ahem, change the way people live.
These three will reappear shortly, of course, turning Scrooge’s story inward a little, suggesting that his long night starts in his own soul, not in some other world. And why not? The scenes the three ghosts show him—his lonely boarding-school boyhood (effectively established with a smart bit of blocking and a deft lighting gesture), old Fezziwig’s glowingly warm holiday frolic, his staunch nephew Fred’s stubbornly affectionate Christmas toast—have always been the stuff of Scrooge’s own thoughts and recollections, chastisements plucked from the disused corners of his psyche. It makes perfect sense that the ghosts should get their genesis there, too.
None of this is to suggest that there’s no magic in this Carol. Choruses cross the stage, features concealed behind subtly disturbing veils, singing strangely dissonant carols. Marley’s face burns a white-hot relief into a door panel that was an unmarked expanse a moment before. Elias’ Christmas Past levitates into Scrooge’s darkened drawing room, her fiber-optic fairy gown glowing like memory, and Watson’s 7-foot Christmas Present towers over the gathering chez Fred, embroidered robe hanging coniferously from his shoulders, chortling as partygoers string tinsel on him. And Christmas Future arrives obscure and menacing as always, a black-cloaked figure wordlessly drawing a world-shrouding night behind him. There’s even a little honest feeling at Ford’s; impossible as you’d expect it would be, there’s something genuinely grave and awful in the moment Michael John Casey’s Bob Cratchit breaks down, mourning the death of that impossibly chipper boy.
Where Matt August’s production really succeeds, though, is in its playful, polished take on the tale. The director and his technical team know that A Christmas Carol needs to feel as much like fable as like life, and they dress it up in fantastical trappings, creating stage pictures every bit as magical as the ones we conjured in our heads way back on our first hearing. It’s not just the ghosts, either. Scrooge’s undernourished tower of a desk, and his “chair” of stacked strongboxes? Inspired. Fabio Toblini’s costumes, all hot colors and playfully huge skirts and shiny, satiny, out-of-scale top hats? They make Fezziwig’s revels look almost Felliniesque—which makes Young Scrooge’s waltz with his young lady, to the sad strain of “Greensleeves,” seem all the more elegant for its quiet reserve. And Pat Collins’ precise, prodigiously complicated lighting plot manipulates mood more efficiently than most human performers: Watch, in that early scene where the two locals come soliciting for their holiday charity drive, and notice how Collins washes them in warm tones while keeping Scrooge trapped within the chill, blue arctic of his meanness.
Performances are good, or at least not hammy, all around, and Rayner’s a standout, as he should be; his Scrooge is plenty of fun whether he’s snarling at a scrap of tinsel or getting giddy over an absurdly large goose. But it’s the sum, not the specifics, of Ford’s reharmonized Christmas Carol that’s so gratifying. It’s classy, where its predecessor was hopelessly cheesy. It’s unrepentantly theater, where its predecessor was content to put the storybook onstage. It is, in short, worthy of the house—and a hopeful sign of what’s to come there.CP