For as long as I can remember, the Goodman Theatre’s annual A Christmas Carol started with bustle—loads of jolly (and, in a sweet utopian gesture, multicultural) Victorians swarming the stage at a trot, greeting one another with enormous smiles, and belting out some rousing holiday tune. Not this year. Director Steve Scott lets you sit in silence for a while at the beginning of the current—that is to say, 34th—production and stare at a painted backdrop depicting what seems to be a London park on a wintry night. The image is still, dark, colorless, cold, and bare. Devoid of any human presence, much less bustle. When the multiculti Victorians show up, they do so belatedly, in a dribbling sort of way.
Not that they don’t eventually achieve festive critical mass. We get our rousing song, and there are plenty of rousing songs—not to mention jigs—in store for us after that. The point has been made, though. The darkness has been acknowledged. That bleak backdrop gets rolled down for crowd scenes throughout the show—but its chilly presence can be felt whether it’s actually before us or not, like that of the Ghost of Christmas Future himself.
Call it the Ghost of the Present Situation. This is a Christmas Carol for the year of the 99 percent.
And it’s not just the opening moment of silence that tells us so. Tom Creamer’s venerable adaptation has been revised this time around to give a nod, for instance, to the mortgage crisis. We meet two characters who are in Charles Dickens’s original 1843 novella but don’t usually see light onstage (at least, I’ve never encountered them there before): a nice young couple who’ve borrowed money from Dickens’s coldhearted old protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, and are having a hard time paying it back. Late in the play, when the Ghost of Christmas Future is showing Scrooge how people will react to his death, the couple are seen having a discreet celebration because Scrooge’s demise means they’ll get some breathing room before the debt is transferred. Trusting fools that they are, they also think that maybe the next lender will be more merciful.
That little addition notwithstanding, you really don’t have to do very much at all to A Christmas Carol to make it speak to our current misery. After all, Scrooge is a man who got rich in finance and won’t voluntarily part with a farthing even though an ever-increasing mass of his fellow citizens—starting with his own clerk, Bob Crachit—are unable to get wholesome food, a decent education, or basic health care on what they earn. Sound familiar? One of the two differences between Scrooge and, say, all the Republican presidential candidates is that Scrooge seems to accept the concept of taxes. When do-gooders come to him for a Christmastime donation, he asks if the prisons and workhouses are still in operation, and is relieved to hear that they are since he pays a substantial sum to the government each year to keep them running.
The other difference is that Scrooge turns out to be salvageable—and it’s a gorgeous thing when that happens to him here. Larry Yando unexpectedly becomes Marcel Marceau, breaking into a dance of joy that’s at once expansive and exquisitely specific.
Strangely, not much of what leads up to that moment is as strong. Yando has offered up some fine Scrooges in the past, but he makes a cartoon of this one with his excessive mugging. I got to wondering if he’d decided that the character is basically an overgrown child, frozen at an early stage of development so that now he behaves with the egocentric petulance of a wounded 12-year-old. It’s an interesting possibility, and it might explain why Yando spends the opening sequences of the play having outsize tantrums and setting his face in an it’ll-freeze-like-that grimace.
Truthfully, the grimace looks pretty spectacular on Yando’s lined, lean face. But the overall effect is to render old Scrooge less human so that his transit to redemption becomes less interesting. It doesn’t help that Jarrod Zimmerman’s young Scrooge tends toward a sullen impenetrability even with the wonderful Nora Fiffer playing Belle, the love of Scrooge’s life. We have to take it on faith that letting her go was the worst mistake of his life and the source of all the others.