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A Christmas Carol/A Christmas Carol 

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Goodman Theatre

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Avenue Theatre

Charles Dickens's Christmas classic A Christmas Carol has become more ubiquitous than the story of the Nativity. For many, Christians and non-, the Dickens tale defines whatever goodness Christmas still yields--and more effectively than the gospels' static tableaux of awestruck shepherds, tribute-laden kings, and hyperactive angels.

An 80-page story penned in 1843 by the 31-year-old author, who intended to publish it as a pamphlet to alert the ruling classes to the plight of poor children, A Christmas Carol traces the ultimate therapy: in one night, a man who has lived for mere profit his whole life is forced to face his accumulated moral losses. Like supernatural accountants, the spirits--Miserbusters!--tote up Ebenezer Scrooge's lifetime of wasted opportunities to show him how they equal loneliness and nullity. In the end, even Scrooge is made to see that little time remains to make amends.

Powerfully, Dickens leads Scrooge back to what he was in order to tell him what he's lost. The greatest deprivation is the loss of that ultimate source of charity and forgiveness, our sense of our own vulnerable humanity. And Christmas is the one time of the year, as Scrooge's nephew puts it, when "men and women open their hearts" and see that others are not means to ends but "fellow passengers to the grave," as worthy and needy as we are.

Interestingly, A Christmas Carol borrows from another sacred myth besides Christmas. Like its direct descendant It's a Wonderful Life, it's also an Easter story, a story of resurrection. In order to live authentically, Scrooge must die--or taste death. A ferocious medicine, this: how many of us could stomach the sight of our tombstone, let alone a world that barely misses us?

Finally "recalled to life" (to quote another Dickens work), Scrooge gratefully seizes this "glorious" second chance: he'll find a better answer to the plight of humanity than "It's not my business." Simple lines like "I'm not the man I was" or "I am--happy" give a sense of relief from a narrow escape. Cynics may say that Scrooge is only temporarily lost in the all-benevolent "oceanic feeling" that Freud derides; in a week he'll be plotting a hostile takeover. I like to think his altruism is fueled by an appreciation of life and love's miracle that's crucial to his own self-esteem.

Thanks to Dickens, Scrooge's resurrection is rooted in a very specific world, ranging from the enduring, threadbare Cratchits to the venal corpse strippers. Over 13 years, the Goodman Theatre has brought that world to an ever fuller life. Rooted in the hard facts of hard times, the most recent adaptation, by Tom Creamer, keeps the spectacle human, democratically distributing its story telling among multiple narrators. (In a swipe at modern puritans, it also informs us that, according to the Victorians' busybody blue laws, the Cratchits would have had to eat cold goose on Christmas Day because bakers would have been forbidden to cook on religious holidays--and the poor had no kitchens.)

The second blessing in Goodman's Christmas Carol is Larry Schanker's richly responsive synthesizer score; among many triumphs, it makes Fezziwig's rollicking party a perpetual motion of delight (as does Beatrix Rashid's choreography). Schanker also lovingly weaves traditional English carols into the beginning and end of the score, which the characters sing to the audience, inviting us to join them.

As always, the Goodman's Carol includes magical stage effects--Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past sailing out of Scrooge's bedchamber, the cornucopia-laden Ghost of Christmas Present rolling in on his bountiful throne, the omnipresent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shooting through the ceiling, starlit canopies and meteor flashes, falling snow and swirling street traffic.

Bedrock performances flesh out the sentiment. William J. Norris, vaguely vulnerable in his nightshirt, makes Scrooge matter more every year; Norris's reactions to all he sees--sometimes a mere wince, often a haunted detachment more terrible than a grimace--form a narrative of their own. Watching his younger self throw away a lifetime of love by refusing Belle's appeal, Norris chokes out "Say something!"; it evokes every chance we've ever missed. He marvels at Fezziwig's power to make others happy, exclaiming, "His power lies in words"--and you can see the idea hit Norris's Scrooge with the force of a revelation.

Where Scrooge receives supernatural support, Norris gets equally solid human backing. Sturdy work comes from Steve Pickering, a richly disturbed Marley; Robert Scogin, a Bob Cratchit who earns more than begs for our sympathy; and Ellen Jane Smith, the most intelligent Belle I've seen anywhere. The Cratchit children are as real as they are sweet--they don't succumb to cloying Currier & Ives domesticity--and Patrick Coffey, the latest little Tim, blesses very nicely.

Of course, A Christmas Carol is Goodman Theatre's cash cow, but hell, compared to Phantom of the Opera it's purity itself. And patrons are encouraged to drop off canned goods in the "Sharing It" bins in the lobby, for distribution to Chicago's needy during the holidays and beyond.

A lot of theaters want to climb on the Dickens gravy train (you know who you are). But there's nothing cynical or opportunistic about Avenue Theatre's affordable A Christmas Carol, now in its second year. There's nothing terrific either: done with heart and on a shoestring, it offers competent but never inspired performances.

Michael Paller's adaptation provides an illuminating, intimate frame to the story. As if to re-create the tale's inception, this production opens with Dickens confronting his younger self, the exploited ten-year-old viciously apprenticed to misery and hardship. The story the older Dickens writes, it's suggested, is meant to placate that boy.

This bleak flashback passes quickly--in no time Dickens is heartily urging his family and friends to perform A Christmas Carol as one of the amateur theatricals he loved to organize. Digging out costumes from an attic trunk, Dickens and his wife, son, niece, editor, younger brother, closest friends, illustrator, and the illustrator's wife join him in a Christmas pantomime that evolves into the beloved story.

The rest of this production follows the original closely, though of course Avenue Theatre cannot muster the resources the Goodman commands. (And after all, it is an amateur theatrical.) Avenue provides one very intriguing moment that the Goodman does not: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to a graveyard crammed with the bodies of children who have been worked or starved to death. It's a wrong so evil that even Scrooge feels it.

Though it doesn't catch fire--the performances are halting and declamatory--Bruce F. Brown's staging is earnest and efficient. The focused work of Jeff Niles as Scrooge provides a rationale for the other characters' reactions--they either hate him or love him, depending on whether or not the ghost therapy has done its work.

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