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Theater Review:

"A CHRISTMAS CAROL" at Goodman Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

The Goodman Theatre’s production of "A Christmas Carol" – now in its 23rd season -- is such a popular Chicago holiday tradition, it hardly needs to be reviewed. But I was very curious about the show’s debut at the Goodman’s new space, with its state-of-the-art amenities, in the heart of the Loop. Director Henry Godinez, who has consistently darkened the staging both visually and emotionally over the years, has lots of room to play on the Albert Ivar mainstage. But despite the increased capacity for spectacle, the director manages to pare down to its timeless essence Charles Dickens’ beloved tale of individuals’ responsibility toward humankind.

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past may fly high into the stratosphere; and the misery-laden spirit of Jacob Marley may get horrifyingly sucked into a fiery abyss. Yet the blocking is surprisingly minimalist and the entire production shrunk into cramped box-like spaces framed in more compartments – leading us, perhaps, deeper into Scrooge’s troubled soul. There’s also an intense intimacy to this year’s "Carol," as well as a chilling sense of foreboding tempered with unselfconscious merriment.

And Godinez, still dedicated to multicultural and multigenerational casting, has assembled a group of truthful and synergistic actors speaking Dickens’ familiar words as if for the first time and not succumbing to cheerily ham-handed performances. During the Christmas Eve sequences, excellent deaf actor Robert Schleifer portrays Mr. Adams, who comes to Scrooge seeking donations for the poor. These scenes are beautifully played out in sign language and spoken words.

Gone are the treacly holiday tunes and spiffy production numbers. Instead audiences get to see ordinary Victorian people celebrating Christmas in their humble abodes. Sarah Underwood and Gregory Hirte serve as versatile and unadorned musicians accompanying home-based dances that are wonderfully un-polished but lovely in their earnestness.

I was most impressed with Godinez’s insistence on filling the stage with real human beings engaged in uneventful tasks that become extraordinary by virtue of the straightforward reading of Dickens’ text – adapted with great clarity and maturity by Goodman dramaturg Tom Creamer. The 19th century British author’s call for a balance between the pursuit of wealth and our duty to our fellow human beings has never gone out of date. And presented as it is without the saccharine trappings of perky stage businesss, this "Christmas Carol" resonates on a more meaningful level.

An effective structural change has the actors emerging from the blackness surrounding the central set pieces rather than entering across the downstage area. This arrangement truly conveys the idea of the characters as spirits across the ages.

While the excessively bleak "Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come" scenes might give children nightmares, it is firmly established that this portion of the show is a dream. It’s particularly significant that Scrooge discovers his tombstone emblazoned on his own raging fireplace – the flames of hell nipping at his heels. A Turner-esque oil painting of a storm-tossed ship above Scrooge’s mantle further visualizes the tumult of Scrooge’s battered psyche.

Rick Snyder continues to add subtle new dimensions to his Scrooge, striking a clearer balance between the crotchety and the compassionate. His Scrooge, like all the characters, is more human and less caricature-driven, making his redemption at the end more palpable. William Brown, a great classical actor, gives Marley a sympathetic earthiness.

Other outstanding performances include: Patrick Clear’s unsentimental Bob Cratchit; Anish Jethmalani as Scrooge’s exuberant nephew Fred; Dale Calandra as the kind-hearted Mr. Fezziwig; Renee Matthews as the spunky Mrs. Fezziwig; Ora Jones’ multidimensional Ghost of Christmas Past; William J. Norris’ creepily gleeful Undertaker; Sandra Delgado as the luminous Belle; and Joe Sikora as the tortured young Scrooge.

The superb design element – Todd Rosenthal’s suggestive, Industrial Revolution-era sets; Robert Christen’s velvety-gloomy lighting; Ray Nardelli’s non-sensationalist sound design; and Heidi Sue McMath’s graciously understated costumes – also bring this production down to earth at the same time it soars into endlessly metaphoric galaxies.•

"A Christmas Carol" runs through December 22 at the Goodman’s Albert Ivar Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $30-$50. Call 312-443-3800.

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