Is there any Christmas tale more widely recognized, revered and riffed on than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? One could make the sweeping claim that the entire Christmas Movie Industrial Complex has Dickens’ 1843 novella to thank or blame. Without the heartstrings-tugging story of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, we might not have How the Grinch Stole Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life or any of the twenty-two titles released by Hallmark Channel this year alone.
It’s an impressive legacy for a novella written under financial duress over a mere six-week period. Perhaps the unremitting iteration machine runs because no Christmas story has yet struck a chord as consonantly as the original. A Christmas Carol is also one of the most adapted stories in the Western canon. In Milwaukee, the play is going on 43 years of production with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, this year’s adaptation by Mark Clements, with local favorite Jonathan Wainwright reprising his role as Scrooge under the direction of Leda Hoffmann.
The play opens with a frenetic, alphabetical word-volley between two narrator figures (Angela Iannone and Christopher Peltier) preparing us for the horror of Ebenezer Scrooge’s character. He’s nefarious, they say; he’s odious, parsimonious. They solicit additional adjectives from the crowd. The curtain speech introduces the audience as much to Scrooge as to the participatory aspect of the show, which continues without much of a fourth wall throughout the night. Humorously, the single word that could have most clearly evinced the play’s protagonist is “scrooge” itself, now an official dictionary entry.
His reputation thoroughly preceding him, Wainwright’s Scrooge is appropriately cantankerous, yet comedic in his movements, played for laughs as he searches his dark bedroom — the usual places, in the closet, under the bed — for the source of a ghastly noise. Here, the audience participation returns, and again when his ghostly visitors ask whether to continue his moral cleansing: should he look under the bed? Yes! Should he see one more painful scene from his youth, the fragments of which are beginning to coalesce into a narrative of disgrace as Scrooge is forced to watch? Yes!
The call-and-response and other whimsical touches (faux snow falling among the audience, the Escher-esque rotating set by Todd Edward Ivins, a particularly comical Victorian working-class accent by Angela Iannone as Scrooge’s housekeeper) helped ground the play for a contemporary audience and temper some of the scarier moments for the kids.
The appearance of Jacob Marley’s ghost, played by a delightful Mark Corkins, is equal parts terrifying and humorous, and it only gets spookier from there. Faceless, clawing personifications of Ignorance and Want, played menacingly by Ashley Bock and Coco Archuleta, respectively, are as tangibly frightening as they are metaphorically disturbing. And though the spook-factor might be too high for very young children (the Rep recommends the show for ages 6 and up), it seems an appropriate aesthetic for a protagonist whose machinations are largely driven by fear. Wainwright seamlessly toggles from tetchy to terrified in the play’s early scenes, gradually spending more time in the latter mode before finding his redemption on Christmas Day. It is through fear, even the kind played for laughs, that his vulnerability shines through.
Charles Dickens was a well-known social commenter and critic of Victorian England’s treatment of the poor, and A Christmas Carol was penned during the height of his political polemics. To make another sweeping claim, the story endures to this day not only for its stage-friendly narrative arc but for its universal message of hope for a better future. If it can provide common footing for Hallmark movie enthusiasts and anti-capitalists alike, perhaps it’s doing something right.
Tiny Tim (played by adorable newcomer Eliel Pozos Lopez) says it best: “God bless us, everyone.”
Go See it: Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents A Christmas Carol in the Historic Pabst Theater from Nov. 27 to Dec. 24