Getting Scrooged

Sitting in the cavernous, "temporary" Arts District Theater to watch Dallas Theater Center's energetic but passionless A Christmas Carol, I couldn't help looking around and noticing how much better dressed everyone else was than me. Of course, my friends would be quick to point out that even if I could afford to wear Versace, I'd still make it look like a set of Sears cotton pajamas. Both the adults and the children around me were not only nattily attired, perfectly pressed, and freshly coiffed--they had the air of cheerful formality that marks what clearly was, for many of these people, a holiday family tradition.

Gazing down at the men and women sitting in the $43 seats right in the front of the theater, I wondered if any of them were CEOs or business entrepreneurs who'd recently made the decision to downsize. The moralism in Charles Dickens' 1843 story A Christmas Carol is fierce and finger-wagging, explicitly aimed not just at the lonely old miser at the play's center, but at the lonely old miser in all of us. For many, the eternal torment that befalls his seven-years-dead business partner, Jacob Marley, is much more chilling than any fundamentalist vision of damnation. Scorching flames pale by comparison to Marley's hell, recognizable because it's the earthbound hell of old-age regret on an endless loop, the stark realization that it's too late to do anything about all the lousy things you said and did to people who cared about you.

You don't have to be rich to wind up in such a sad place, of course. But Charles Dickens, who as a child watched his father toted off to debtors' prison and was himself forced to toil in a shoe-polish factory before he hit puberty, was especially sensitive to the pitfalls of materialism. Certainly it's ironic that an audience that included some of Dallas' top earners had gathered on a not-too-cold December night to watch a lectury supernatural caveat about the pursuit of money. But A Christmas Carol has become so institutionalized that just to sit through it one more time has become synonymous with performing a noble act.

Unfortunately, this may be true with regard to the Dallas Theater Center's 1997 edition of A Christmas Carol. At a recent weeknight performance, the 38 actors involved in this sprawling show, some of whom have multiple roles, hit all the marks and occasionally even generated a hearty round of laughter. But "occasionally" is the key word here, for the quality of many of the performances was rote--recitative rather than inspired or interpretative. There were several awkward pauses where the expectation of laughter that didn't materialize created potholes under the evening's ride. My fellow audience members, gratefully, didn't succumb to the state of denial that shelling out $25 or $50 a pop sometimes induces. When it wasn't funny, they didn't laugh.

Local theater folks who resent the Dallas Theater Center for casting most of their shows out of town, take note--A Christmas Carol features an almost entirely native cast, and was helmed by Raphael Parry, artistic director of the Undermain Theatre. Parry makes lively use of DTC's echoing barn of an Arts District space, stringing actors like tinsel rope through the audience as characters made their entrances and exits. But his frequent use of puppetry definitely lost its impact beyond the first several rows. From the risers, you couldn't see how ornately a puppet was designed, and distance tends to reveal them as inanimate objects with somebody's hand up their back side.

Dallas actors provide many of the play's highlights. Jeremy Schwartz is a scary and commanding Jacob Marley, all wrapped up in chains and dangling upside down. I wanted more. Likewise for Liz Mikel, who as always, maneuvers her big, beautiful body with as much precision as her big, beautiful voice. She got plenty of laughs from using the former as a towering Mrs. Fezziwig, while the latter turned her Ghost of Christmas Present into a mournful tour guide of the privation of Scrooge's employees.

Without a doubt, the biggest liability in the current production is Todd Waite as Scrooge. The program informs us he is "a leading actor of the Canadian stage," but the Theater Center could've saved itself Waite's plane fare by casting either Lynn Mathis or T.A. Taylor, two Dallas stage actors who excel at conjuring curmudgeonly magic. (Mathis is a few miles away, having a good time in the Undermain's A Por Quinley Christmas, a considerably fresher holiday trifle.) Waite is, in the first place, far too young and delicately featured to play such an old man; his wrinkles and gray pallor look as painted on as they were.

In the second place, while not untalented, Waite simply lacks the thespian gust to harumph his way through Scrooge's redemption. He exposes his gooey center way too quickly, caving in practically as soon as the Ghost of Christmas Past (Khary Payton, decked out in wonderful commedia del arte regalia) arrives. He even manages to screw up "Bah humbug," inserting a lingering pause between the words that made the "humbug" come out as a half-stifled sneeze. A smart performance would at least have made Scrooge's avarice initially fun; Waite lost the audience from the opening scenes.

In summary, Charles Dickens hasn't failed us, we've failed Dickens, or at least his principled vision of a world where people value each other more than high salaries. The revival of A Christmas Carol is part fetish, part penance, and part heresy, managing to signify contrition even as annual productions arguably serve as a voyeuristic replacement for it. We're all so familiar with the pointed passion of Dickens' message, we go into autopilot the moment Scrooge starts bellowing from the podium. I wondered what would happen if the spirit of Charles Dickens suddenly invaded DTC's production, turned to the audience, and lectured us in ethereal tones about the cruel excesses of capitalism. Then I realized--none of us would probably notice the difference.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 28. Call 522-


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