Ironically, it's hard to imagine Santa without Scrooge. A Christmas Carol -- Charles Dickens' tale about a curmudgeonly old moneybags and Christmas-hater who learns to love St. Nick following a lesson about karma from a bunch of thoughtful ghosts -- has become so synonymous with the Season of Good Will that some academics credit the author with inventing the concept of the holiday as we know it today. The novella became an instant hit upon its publication in 1843. By February 1844, London boasted at least eight theatrical realizations of the story. There have been countless screen adaptations, from an acclaimed 1951 British version to a 1971 Oscar-winning animated short. Carol is now considered the second most popular Christmas narrative ever told, outdone only by the one about the swaddling clothes, the manger, and the donkey. Simply put: Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Dickens' redemptive fable.
That there are no fewer than five stage adaptations of Carol running in Bay Area theaters this season tells you something about the enduring power of tradition. But the trouble with tradition is that it contradicts the notion of living, breathing theater. Audiences hanker to be told familiar stories in familiar ways -- which is as comforting as a pat on the head and a shiny sixpence from a beloved uncle. And theater companies, always wanting to get bums on seats, too often play to that desire. So what you get, year after year, is a multitude of calcified, nightcap-twirling Scrooges, choruses of ruddy-cheeked urchins, and -- worst of all -- that awful squeak of "God bless us everyone!" from the little git on crutches. If director Peter Brook were to drop in on most of these shows, he'd likely describe them as deadly.
In an attempt to clear the air of the smell of decaying turkey, ACT brings its "all new" version of Carol to the Geary stage. This realization of the story, adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff (who also directs), represents both a break with tradition (in taking over from the nearly 30-year run of the company's previous Carol production, created by Laird Williamson and Dennis Powers in 1976) and a staunch upholding of it. Perloff has described the telling of Carol as "an incredibly important annual ritual." The production may boast a script, sets, costumes, and music as new as untrodden snow, but how fresh does it really feel? Like The Nutcracker (or any other theatrical chestnut), Carol is a hard nut to crack. The biggest challenge is finding the right balance between tradition and transformation, ritual and renewal -- communicating something simultaneously heartwarming and startling in the present moment.
On some levels, ACT's Carol does feel like a museum piece, more intent on preserving customs than presenting lively theater. Giles Havergal's Scrooge is the archetypical gaunt Pantaloon in a nightdress. Steve Irish's Mr. Fezziwig is, naturally, the protagonist's nemesis -- a man of generous proportions and pocketbook, a Father Christmas figure in a curly red wig and frock coat. He even says "Yo ho!" when he enters. The scenes are littered with adorable waifs in Victorian garb and tidy morals like "Money isn't everything." And, yes, Tiny Tim's saccharine exclamation to God remains intact.
The fine dust of mummification that occasionally coats this show, though, doesn't stem from these superficial motifs so often lifted from Dickens' original. In fact, some of the production's most significant innovations are to blame for this Carol's deadly moments. One of the most revealing examples can be seen in Perloff and Walsh's decision to dispense with the statutory narrator. Normally, this would be an improvement. Narration is frequently anti-dramatic and clumsy onstage; telling a story through action between characters generally makes for more satisfying scenes. Except, that is, when it come to Dickens. So much of the satire, social commentary, and depth of Carol (and most of the author's other works) is embedded in the narrator's voice. Creating exciting dialogue out of his words, however, is tricky. Cal Shakes made an uneven attempt to solve the problem by dispersing the storyteller's perspective among multiple characters in Nicholas Nickleby earlier this year. ACT's solution -- though laudable -- is no more successful. Something of the spirit of Carol is lost without the commentator's viewpoint. As a result, the talk feels forced and rather lifeless.
I could also go on about the tuneless songs with their inane lyrics (what on earth does "Scrooge, Scrooge, oh so Scrooge" mean, anyway?), which make the show feel like a halfhearted attempt at a musical, or the clichéd, Tim Burton-inspired "fairy tale" scenery that cramps the usually spacious-looking Geary stage. But I don't want to be a total humbug. Besides, ACT's Carol possesses many magical moments -- in which the dust lifts and the ghosts breathe.
Even though this version is extremely playful and full of light -- from Nancy Schertler's delicate pink-white lighting effects in the "Ghost of Christmas Past" scene to children running about dressed up as figs, onions, and plums during "Christmas Present" -- my favorite moment is the darkest of all: "Christmas Future." Rather than an actor playing the part of the spirit (as in "Past" and "Present"), a monstrous bird of death presides over the scene, its ragged puppet feathers and violent red eyes piercing Scrooge's heart. Here the story jumps off the page and engulfs the stage. It's exhilarating.
When Scrooge's gravestone dissolves into the headboard of his bed, Perloff finally, and exquisitely, makes good her interpretation of the story as being "at its core a piece about magic and transformation." It's customary for Scrooge to wake up on Christmas Day feeling like a new man. But it's rare that I, the viewer, feel any different. In this case -- and in spite of the cobwebs -- I left the theater feeling a little changed. Tradition had nothing to do with it.