The Saturday matinee performance of A Christmas Carol at Dallas Theater Center's Arts District Theater was between half and three quarters full, but when you consider these people had set aside ticket money and prime mall time to soak in Dickens at DTC, there was an odd taciturn air drifting through the aircraft-hangar heights of the facility. The audience, to a large degree, was unresponsive; a grim sense of duty had apparently weighed them down in their seats, from the highest rafter to mid-floor. (Arriving late to the show, I was placed in the former for the first act and moved down for the second act to the latter after a couple with a child abandoned their chairs.) There were even two moments when the performers ended a particularly rigorous song-and-dance workout, frozen with mouths wide open in smile and arms outstretched...waiting for applause that never came.
It had been several years since I'd attended A Christmas Carol, offering all of the usual excuses that it's not, after all, really intended for critics; in many Dallas families, attendance has become such a tradition that you almost feel disrespectful ragging on it. But at some point, "tradition" decomposes into "rut," which might explain the appearance of detachment in people's faces. If you've ever been to a Dallas performance and seen some guy watching you instead of the performance, it's probably me; for any number of reasons particular to a production, I become interested in the responses of people who paid to get in and try to discern them with quick glances. And the audience at this early-weekend show appeared to have taken Woody Allen's axiom and tweaked it to fit the theater--90 percent of the production was, for them, just showing up. Were they not to occasionally blink and smile politely, a coroner from Mr. Dickens' day might've been compelled to place a mirror to their lips--just in case--before planting the shovel.
I contend that, just as with much Shakespeare, the sheer hypnotic hyper-acquaintance most of us have with this material winds up overwhelming any nuances that artists are still able to ring from it. As has been well-publicized, the Meadows Foundation donated $250,000 to gussy up sets, costumes, and special effects; former DTC associate Jonathan Moscone and soon-to-be-former associate Preston Lane adapted this version just last year to elaborate the scary and swashbuckling moments (Moscone returned from California this year to direct again). Let me throw a tantrum about Meadows funneling a quarter of a million dollars into A Christmas Carol. No one will listen, but that rarely stops me. What's next--a grant for Dallas Summer Musicals to commission a musical version of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters? Why not hire some national playwright accustomed to more imaginative fare to write a new piece, the way the Undermain did with Quincy Long in A Por Quinley Christmas? Before you protest, "But that's the Undermain," remember that Por Quinley was neither edgy nor experimental--it was smart, goofy, imaginative, and selective about its sentiment. And, if memory serves me well, it would lend itself spectacularly to designers with the cash to go wild. Sadly, I suspect, the responsibility for trepidation about change lies more with the audience than the artist, who rarely protests the decision to do something new--too often, the ticket buyers don't support it (although during both years of their production, Undermain sold out almost every seat in its small house for Por Quinley).
Again, I'm going to enter this argument against A Christmas Carol through the back door and say anything truly fresh and entertaining may be lost, because we're all conditioned by names like "Scrooge" and "The Spirit of Christmas Past" to switch off--and if ever there's a time of year when competing thoughts require us to seek comatose relief, it's December. Scraping away the morass of my own clogged memory of versions past, I enjoyed many specific ingredients and performers in Carol 2000--the giant clock ominously glowing the hours as they pass; the eruption of Marley (Akin Babatunde) from the bed of Scrooge (Reggie Montgomery), although it doesn't surpass the memory of a past DTC Marley, with Jeremy Schwartz upside down in a curtain of chains and bellowing like a dying animal; and Chris Carlos, Liz Mikel, Chamblee Ferguson, and James Crawford, a quartet with striding, big-hearted appeal that makes us approve of even their hammier moments. Carlos especially, as the Ali Baba of Scrooge's youthful fantasies, flashes enchanting faux heroism as he sword fights with a giant snowman. But I had to remove these ornaments from the story's tree and admire them up close and separate, which blunted the whole of the spectacle.
Meanwhile, DTC's inevitably imported Scrooge, played by Reggie Montgomery (he directed this year's sensational Crumbs from the Table of Joy), seems displaced. He's way too young, which would matter little if Montgomery weren't trying too hard with a circus-clown performance that, while technically accomplished, causes us to feel that the actor is some kind of windup Christmas trinket; he turns on and off when he's supposed to, but there's little animating intelligence, and even less awareness of his fellow actors. "Precocious" is not an adjective one generally associates with actors playing Scrooge. Montgomery reminded me of a bit of Jim Carrey in the current Grinch--and that's not a compliment, however much Carrey owns the national box office right now. Here, Scrooge seems to be bludgeoning the little children in the audience with benevolent attention, letting them know that he's not as mean and spooky as Dickens intended him to be. They responded with scattered, faint laughter--there was no need for Montgomery to disarm a performance loaded with blanks from its conception. Director Jonathan Moscone's leading man didn't help, but I'm not sure even a generous, age-appropriate roof-raiser could cut through the narcotic effect of what was designed, in another era, to be a tonic, a reviver of moral sensibilities. "But what about the children?" cry the perpetually concerned, who are less interested in the moral instruction of children than in their usefulness as a tool for it. Here, their argument does make sense, because I can remember a time when I enjoyed Scrooge's story or some knock-off, especially for heavy dashes of moribund seasoning added to the pudding. So while I hope that the Dallas Theater Center provides this opportunity for discovery to successive generations, it would be nice if we, the elderly and embittered, could be offered a chance to care again--since Dickens wrote the story about us, after all. As it stands now, A Christmas Carol might ladle out professional children's entertainment, but to describe it as "fun for the whole family" would be a fib worthy of a national politician.
I really wanted to like, or at least appreciate, Heart of Christmas , a novel adaptation of two different literary sources by director Elizabeth Ware, whose Core Performance Manufactory staged it at the Bath House Cultural Center--if for no other reason than "on principle," since I spend at least a couple of columns each year complaining about the chronic outbreak of the same old holiday revivals. And I didn't dislike it enough to prevent me from suggesting that Ware reexamine it, redraft it, lengthen it, make the parallels between Dickens' adamantly anti-materialist A Christmas Carol and Joseph Conrad's vaguely anti-imperialist Heart of Darkness more explicit and startling. It's a short leap from the indentured servitude in which Ebenezer Scrooge holds his employees to the exploitation of jungle inhabitants by that ivory-lusting tyrant Kurtz. And so Ware devises a man named Ebenezer Kurtz (played by Martin Holden, whose unpretentious gravity gives this piece its best shot at a dramatic core) who, dying in the jungle, is taken through his life by a Christmas ghost (Audrey McClure, whose rich voice belies her stiff presence). In Conrad's novel, a man named Marlow tells to an unknown narrator the story of Kurtz's journey into the Congo; here, Marlow (Steven Blount) is the direct, if somewhat mystified, teller of the man's tale--until they confront each other in the darkness, and Marlow is mistaken for Marley, a former business associate of Ebenezer Kurtz's.
Part of the problem with Heart of Christmas is that Ware has hugely oversimplified Conrad's novel, which isn't really a finger-wagging exercise about slavery, but an intensely psychological, symbolic story of the competing instincts for civilization and savagery inside everyone. Dickens was a proud Victorian moralist where the injustices of his own society were concerned; Conrad was more interested in how what happens outside reflects what's happening inside. And Ware has not interwoven these related but cross-purposed emphases in any compelling manner. I can report that Core Performance Manufactory has mounted a show expressive in its light and sound design; Michael Burkett III spills illumination in eerie puddles across the floor, and bathes the office of a fretful accountant (Mark O'Dell) with appropriately harsh, unsympathetic light. Veteran Dallas music master Kim Corbet keeps the show more interesting than it really is with foley artist touches of percussion, horn, rain stick, etc., although the look of his wicker-and-bamboo setup makes us think less of Conrad's primeval inner empire than Jimmy Buffet on Gilligan's Island.
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