A Christmas Carol: Get in the Spirit

john jarvis, joseph ziegler
photo by sandy nicholson
Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without revisiting Charles Dickens’ masterpiece A Christmas Carol, first published by Chapman and Hall in serial in 1843. There have been many iconic renditions of this story created and produced to much acclaim, which have become heart warming holiday traditions for millions of people worldwide. From Alistair Sim to Scrooge McDuck, Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog and even Kelsey Grammar and Jason Alexander, this is one story that seems to beg not only to be told, but retold and continually re-imagined. We are indeed fortunate to have our very own Christmas Carol tradition here in Toronto, Michael Shamata’s vivid and evocative adaptation at Soulpepper Theatre, which has been remounted for the fifth time and is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until December 30th, 2010.
A Christmas Carol tells the story of a miserly old curmudgeon named Ebenezer Scrooge who is known for being selfish and unfeeling toward those less fortunate than himself. On Christmas Eve he is visited by the spirit of his late partner, Jacob Marley, who returns from seven years in the grave to warn Scrooge of a Hellish fate awaiting him in death unless he learns compassion, kindness and charity. He is visited by three ghosts, of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, who remind Scrooge of the importance of keeping Christmas in your heart all the year through.
Michael Shamata brings this story to the stage in a very unique and beautiful way. It is told in the round, which thrusts the audience into the heart of the story, as though they were all bustling townspersons in Victorian London. It is also fascinating to watch how seamlessly Shamata has incorporated practical movements for the sake of sightlines into the motivations and storytelling aspects of the performance. We are reminded immediately that this is a ghost story, and therefore the play is kept quite dark, where shadows can play tricks on the eye, especially when illuminated by candlelight.
What I think makes Dickens such an endearing and enduring storyteller is his ability to weave humour intricately into heart rending tales crusading for social justice. Scrooge has great comedic potential, as proven by the long line of cartoon characters who have taken on the role, yet in the formidable hands of Joseph Ziegler Scrooge becomes less of a ranting and raving grouch and a more intense, gruff and bitter old man intent on stomping out joy even with the scornful darting look of a silent eye. Yet Ziegler also appreciates Dickens talent for humour and the necessity for such dark tales to have moments of relief, and his Scrooge hits every subtle moment that warrants laughter from the audience without undermining his character’s unflinching seriousness. At the end of the play the cantankerousness melts off Ziegler’s Scrooge like unwanted snow, revealing a zest for life powerful enough to move the audience to tears.
John Jarvis plays all the spirits in the play, which gives them a magical continuity. His Jacob Marley is tormented and exhausted but also with a degree of forced restlessness. The rhythm between Scrooge and Marley suggests familiarity and routine but is aptly devoid of the sentimental intimacy that one might expect from two close friends. It is clear this certainly had been eroded from the economically obsessed Jacob and Ebenezer years ago. Jarvis’ Ghost of Christmas Past seems pleased with himself, while the Ghost of Christmas Present is more innocent and naive, being only one day old, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is sufficiently eerie and harshly silent. Oliver Dennis gives a beautiful performance as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s poor clerk who is abused and taken advantage of, but who always turns the other cheek and focuses instead on the love of his family and friends. Dennis fills Cratchit with a timid and quiet conviction and faith in humanity and an unadulterated adoration and respect for his wife and their children. Oliver Dennis has such a talent for giving sweet, endearing characters depth and texture without corrupting the purity of their hearts. Kevin Bundy is wonderful as the gregarious Mr. Fezziwig, who pretends to be stern so that his frivolity will be more ardently appreciated by his employees. Scrooge has a line in the text where he says of his employer, “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune” and with the fiddles playing and the square dancing amid Kevin Bundy’s exuberant jolliness, the essence of this passage is painted onstage like a quaint and charming portrait.
As skilled as Dickens is in his ability to create iconic and beloved characters, I do find that sometimes his ingénue style female characters are challenging to play dramatically because they tend to be more wooden than their male counterparts. I liked Deborah Drakeford’s nervous, doubtful energy as Mrs. Cratchit, a woman who seems to want to round her children up, wrap them in a blanket and press them into her heart forever. Sarah Wilson’s Belle is more challenging. For a woman of her time, she exhibits great strength of character in berating Scrooge, however politely, and firmly refusing his offer of marriage on her own higher principles, but at the same time, she still stands as a sweet ideal of femininity, the perfect lost love, without a strong unique personality which can be difficult for an actor to play. I did like Wilson’s gentleness, however, especially how tenderly she said her line, “You fear the world too much, Ebenezer,” which I thought resonated poignantly.
Elliott Waugh plays Peter Cratchit, the oldest child of Bob, who is just sprouting into a young man, with modest pride and dutiful, earnest concern for his mother. Charlotte Dennis plays Martha, the oldest child, who is still a very young girl to be working to help support the family. Dennis is a very natural performer who gives Martha a slight weariness, but ultimately has a sweet and unwaivering rapport with both her parents and her siblings. Owen Cumming is delightful as Tiny Tim, slightly precocious with sharp comic timing, but I also got this lovely sense that Cumming’s Tim was well on his way to growing up to be exactly like Dennis’ Bob.
Usually Tiny Tim, as referenced in his name, is portrayed as the youngest of the Cratchit children, but in this production Alyson MacFarlane’s Belinda read as being the youngest. This, I thought, was a very interesting choice because in other productions Tim is doted on by all his siblings, both because he is lame, but also because he is the baby. Yet, here, that dynamic is changed, and Tim is given the opportunity to be both a younger brother, but also imbued with the responsibility of being an older brother. From a practical and theatrical point of view as well, I think the audience, in general, immediately develops a sort of kinship with a child actor who appears to be the youngest, and so in this production, I think, the audience connects to Tim, because Dickens has written it so, but also to Belinda because MacFarlane is the smallest actor onstage. This means that Cumming works a little harder to endear himself to the audience, and MacFarlane helps him by not only being terrific in the way that she says her lines, but also by being especially skilled at actively listening to the other characters and in her reactions, which are always realistic, but never pull focus.
Most of us know the moral of A Christmas Carol, and I think we are all quite familiar with the concepts of compassion and charity, kindness and keeping the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts all the year through. However, I think that as a society we tend to take for granted that we know the principles and ideals of humanism, but we often disregard the reality that we don’t always put these principles and ideals into practice. Living as Scrooge learns to live is not always convenient, it is not always conducive to being ambitious or manoeuvring through an overscheduled life with an IPod blaring in one’s ears. I think we come back to retell this story every December because we know in our hearts that we need to be reminded to “open our shut-up hearts freely” so that our pasts and our futures will not haunt the splendour of the present. This production is a stunning reminder.
A Christmas Carol plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street) until December 30th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.866.8666 or visit www.soulpepper.ca.

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