LOSING THE SPIRIT

Charles Dickens understood the fine art of tearjerking. Nobody before or since could sentimentalize human virtue, family life or the death of a child with such unabashed exploitation and get away with it.

But Dickens loved the rarer pleasures of supernatural horror as well, and his A Christmas Carol, now in a cockles-warming revival at the Denver Center Theatre Company, combines the horrors of poverty and suffering with the tantalizing scariness of blessed spirits and damned specters. Unfortunately, the imposition of twentieth-century sensibilities on such a classic tale can be pretty scary, too.

Ebenezer Scrooge has no empathy for others, living only to make money and despising those without it. He makes his office a horror of discomfort for his clerk, Bob Cratchit. But his miserly spirit is most cramped by his utter indifference to human suffering. Then one Christmas Eve, the seventh anniversary of his partner's death, the dead man returns to warn and reform Scrooge. Jacob Marley warns Scrooge that he must change, and he provides him with three spirits who will help: Christmases Past, Present and Future. These blessed spirits show him how he was and how he is and what will become of him if he doesn't change. One night of fright is enough, and when he awakens on Christmas morning, he is a new man.

Dickens has the Ghost of Christmas Past show Scrooge his childhood again. Memories long buried are made to surface, and revisiting his childhood does help him. But Dickens, thank goodness, was a nineteenth-century writer, and the "inner child" concept was another 100 years into the future. For Dickens, Scrooge's early suffering should have made him empathetic to the suffering of others. Unfortunately, Laird Williamson, who adapted this version, couldn't avoid "improving" on Dickens, and the link between Ebenezer's childhood and his odious adult self is reinterpreted through the lens of pop psychology.

The DCTC's annual production has its moments. There it is again, the splendidly designed set that is slowly stripped as Scrooge's armor is peeled away. The highly polished professionalism is still involving. The music, written especially for the show, is still pleasant and meant to twist the heartstrings (though real Christmas music is really much better at that particular trick). Scrooge's nephew, Fred, is played by John Hutton, who makes a whole joyful character out of a small part. And the Fezziwig ball, featuring Harvey Blanks and Kathleen M. Brady as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, is terrific. All the Dickensian nostalgia the show evokes is still liable to bring on an attack of coziness.

But once again, Scrooge's redemption falls a bit flat--as if adaptor/director Williamson doesn't quite get the point of the story. Part of the problem is the portrayal of Scrooge by Richard Risso--a brilliant actor who, like Williamson, doesn't take Scrooge's brush with damnation seriously enough. Risso is so good through the first act that the disappointment at his failure to realize the significance of a transformed life is all the keener.

Toward the end of the show, as Scrooge nears his Christmas Eve epiphany, the slick professionalism of the production begins to gall a bit. Where is the substance behind all this lovely glitz?

Some of the greatest actors in the world have played Scrooge in the past. But they understood Dickens's purpose. By pandering to contemporary American tastes, Williamson has undermined Dickens's spirit--and emasculated his work.

 
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