Review: Guthrie Theater’s “Christmas Carol” constrains its characters

Review: Guthrie Theater’s “Christmas Carol” constrains its characters

I suspected my mom would have one question about this year’s production of A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater: Does the turkey trot?

Fifteen years ago, the Fezziwigs’ onstage party was so riotous, a roasted fowl was produced and “the darn turkey causes an uproar by hopping off the table,” my mom wrote in a 2008 review for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. “It runs around the stage several times and exits stage left.”

Director Gary Gisselman’s Christmas Carol was chockablock with physical humor and treated Scrooge’s journey broadly, playing to the peanut gallery (as the headline on that 2008 review put it). The Guthrie added some discipline in 2010, commissioning a new script from Crispin Whittell for a rendition that, with various edits over the course of its decade-long run, came increasingly to focus on the spirit of the story and its social conscience.

The current Christmas Carol was adapted from Charles Dickens’s 1843 novel by Lavina Jadhwani, in a script that debuted in 2021 with artistic director Joseph Haj at the helm. This year, Addie Gorlin-Han directs the show, though Haj retains a “based on the original direction” credit.

This was my first year seeing the Guthrie’s post-lockdown Carol, and it was moving just to browse the program: the cast is full of familiar names, taking regular Twin Cities theatergoers on their own journeys of memory — not only to previous Guthrie productions, but also to the stages of Penumbra, Mixed Blood, and even Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

While I’m not particularly nostalgic for the era when Fezziwigs’ prank turkey was followed by a scene where a prop dog ran amok on the streets of London (“chasing an unfortunate soul out the same exit where the turkey disappeared,” noted Mom), the current Carol left me thirsty for just a bit of the character humor that this material lends itself to.

Jadhwani’s Fezziwig scene, for example, flies by so swiftly that the jolly merchant (Paul de Cordova) hardly has time to close the shutters before Scrooge (Matthew Saldivar) is whisked away for his next life lesson. It’s well and good to make time for an interval like Scrooge’s excursion to the high seas, but the Fezziwig party becomes one of several interludes where character establishment becomes a matter of telling rather than showing.

From Bob Cratchit (John Catron, always good at playing abashed) to the ghost of Jacob Marley (Charity Jones, hardly leaving Scrooge’s onstage bed) to Scrooge’s sister Fan (a maternal Isa Condo-Olvera, far from the novel’s “little girl, much younger than the boy”), to young Scrooge (Sebastian Grim, given little to do before getting dumped), the characters appear onstage and nail their lines of Dickens dialogue, but fail to make much of an impression.

Even the appearance of Greta Oglesby, gloriously costumed (by Toni-Leslie James and Emily Tappan) as the Ghost of Christmas Present and inviting Scrooge to gaze upon her sumptuous feast, failed to produce much stir in Friday night’s audience. It’s the kind of moment that should be bread and butter for the Guthrie, with an actor who has repeatedly riveted on its stages, but this emotionally austere production remains stubbornly subdued.

The show does, gratifyingly, portray Scrooge as much younger than the wizened miser commonly seen on stage and screen. The story’s stakes are transformed when Scrooge, as in the novel, has potentially decades of life before him. The grave looms more ominously, and the spry Saldivar slides up to it like Willi Castro stealing second. Jadhwani and Gorlin-Han also have Scrooge’s emotional turn begin early, dodging another common mistake.

Still, even Scrooge melts into Matt Saunders’s elaborate scenery. If money has displaced Belle (Stephanie Anne Bertumen, luminous) in his heart, the characters in this Carol have been displaced by a chorus that regularly fills the stage, singing and dancing and marking the passage of time (in rather literal tick-tock motion). The actors nail their harmonized vocals and Regina Peluso’s elegant choreography so precisely, it becomes almost oppressive. This doesn’t seem like the kind of warm community that might tempt Scrooge out of his counting house: it feels more like a cult.

The show lands on firmer footing after intermission, when the story’s dark doings better accord with this show’s somber mien. The dramatically dropping Ghost of Christmas Future from the Whittell years was hard to top, but the staggering specter who now emerges in a blast of fog is absolutely astonishing.

With Andy Frye occupying a towering, skeletal ghoul stripped of the character’s typical cloak, the character’s emergence is so much more colorful than the rest of the show, it nearly plays as camp. It’s a reminder of why the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol has traditionally relied so heavily on stage spectacle: it can eclipse the story, but it leaves more of an impression than a prim Victorian chorus, however fluidly they move about the stage.

While this production’s performances often feel constrained, the set is regularly in motion, with an elevator and a turntable efficiently whisking us from one locale to another. After years of having Scrooge simply shuffle upstairs to a garret bedroom, Saunders gives the character an entire haunted house that effectively evokes the character’s isolation and sets the stage for the sprits’ arrival.

I’m glad to have bade farewell to distracting flourishes like Scrooge’s sidekick housekeeper and the rapid-fire recap of the Fezziwig daughters’ love lives, but as Ebenezer himself learns, there is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. Saldivar’s Scrooge has literally let his hair down — has the Wurtele Thrust ever seen such luscious locks? — but this strangely subdued Carol remains firmly stuffed in its nightcap.

Jay Gabler

Top: Kurt Kwan (Ghost of Christmas Past) and Matthew Saldivar (Ebenezer Scrooge). Center: Saldivar and Greta Oglesby (Ghost of Christmas Present). Photos by Dan Norman, courtesy Guthrie Theater.