Fright Before Christmas

Zombies do not deliver Christmas cheer. A small squad of the eerie undead stomp onstage to represent the Spirits of Christmases Yet to Come in Act 2 of Dallas Theater Center's A Christmas Carol. They step-drag, step-drag in front of Ebenezer Scrooge (James Carpenter). Rising from the misty graveyard in burlap burnooses, they show him the tragic end of Tiny Tim (Christopher Cartwright) and Scrooge's own demise--inevitable if the greedy miser doesn't take his heart out of the deep freeze. The zombies stick around for a while, doing a slow-mo zombie line dance through the curls of fog at their feet.

Turning Charles Dickens' classic holiday story into a night of the living dead is just one of the tactical errors in the production directed by Jonathan Moscone from an adaptation he wrote with Preston Lane. This is A Christmas Carol that dwells in the gloomy sewers of old London town, a feel-good fable turned tale from the crypt.

The play begins in a dark tone as the cast steps solemnly center stage to sing an a cappella version of "O, Holy Night" that starts on a bass note, led by the thundering voice of Liz Mikel. They do a lot of singing in this show, mostly traditional carols that only serve to interrupt the flow of the story. But there is no joy in their noels. These voices are lackluster. There's a lot of dancing breaking up the action, too, some of it in overlong segments that are weirdly modern and interpretive, as though choreographer David Shimotakahara were channeling a morbidly depressed Agnes DeMille.

The familiar story of Scrooge, his underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit (father of the ailing Tiny Tim) and Scrooge's Christmas Eve visit from three ghosts who show him the errors of his ways is told in talk-to-the-audience narrative form. Actors speak in unison or in overlapping lines as they take turns describing their characters in the third person. Moscone and Lane stick with arch, flowery language that hits the ear like Dickens via Beowulf: "That which promised happiness when we were one now is fraught with misery." All of the dialogue is fraught with such formality the viewer needs subtitles to tell what's going on.

The timeless joy of A Christmas Carol lies in its pathos and its humor. From Alastair Sim's blustery Scrooge in the classic 1951 film version right through to Mr. Magoo's and Bill Murray's, the fun of watching the old humbug dig in his heels to resist the heart-tugging sentimentality around the holiday hearth is what makes his final redemption so rewarding. DTC's latest adaptation, reviewed at a preview, drains most of the laughs (there was one good one toward the end) and almost all of the emotion and sentiment from the proceedings. We see very little of Tiny Tim, for instance, so his "God bless us, everyone" in the last scene sounds hollow. (A shame, too, given that young Mr. Cartwright as Tim is cuter than should be legally allowed.)

The casting of DTC's Scrooge is downright wonky. James Carpenter, an import from the California Shakespeare Theatre, sleepwalks through a part that begs for a larger-than-life attack. His vocal performance is unimaginative, his "Bah, humbugs" banal. (Does he use an accent? Who can remember?) Carpenter's physical presence is so unremarkable that he's often lost among the crowd onstage. His is a younger Scrooge, less stingy villain than misunderstood CEO yearning for a little kindness from his beleaguered employees. He never makes us care one whit about the character. The zombies evoke more empathy.

The rest of the cast is mostly local talent, led by Mikel, returning for her 12th year as the Spirit of Christmas Present (the one who smuggles two starving urchins under her voluminous hoopskirt to convince Scrooge of the value of charity). In past DTC Carols, Mikel's ghost made impressive, memorable entrances employing special effects that wowed the crowd. This time, however, she simply strolls in from the back of the house with all the dramatic punch of an usher seating a latecomer. And what is that thing on her head? A halo? A satellite dish?

The cast seems smaller this year, with many actors doubling roles. It becomes a chore trying to figure out if Casey Robinson (last seen wearing nothing but a come-hither look in Uptown's Love! Valour! Compassion!) is playing the young Scrooge in a scene or Scrooge's nephew Fred. He wears the same outfit for both roles, including some fuzzy jaw whiskers inspired by Wolverine from X-Men. Robinson doffs his shirt briefly to play Ali Baba, fencing with a snowman in one of Scrooge's childhood memories. Bob Hess acts no differently when he's poor Bob Cratchit than he does as one of the merry party guests at the Fezziwigs' bash. And there's Mikel again, not as the ghost but as the bouncy Mrs. Fezziwig. Confusing.

Narelle Sissons' industrial-style set uses cold steel girders and minimalist furniture. It doesn't say 19th-century London so much as 19th-century London prison. The costumes by Katherine B. Roth offer some warm touches of crimson and cranberry, but the men's white kneebritches were surely meant to be worn by shorter, thinner actors.

Missed most are all those theatrical zings of yesteryear. Repeat DTC Carol-goers will recall a Spirit of Christmas Past who emerged in a moment of ooh-aah stage magic out of the middle of Scrooge's bedstead. Christmas Future was once a gigantic puppet looming over the audience. Now the former is a little girl (Clara Peretz) who steps from Scrooge's closet like a pale child playing hide-and-seek. Marley's Ghost (Bob Reed) is still a noisy chain-rattler, but now when he tumbles backward into an open grave it's just plain creepy. And those Act 2 zombies, zounds. It's one thing to play up the darker side of Dickens, but Moscone and friends offer images that could trigger night terrors.

There is more Christmas spirit in Macbeth.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner