REVIEW: A Christmas Carol (Goodman Theatre)

  
  

Sympathy for the Curmudgeon

  
  

Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) and Jacob Marley (Anish Jethmalani)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
A Christmas Carol
   
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by
Tom Creamer
Directed by
William Brown
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Christmas stories always frightened me as a child. I was the kid peering from beneath the blankets, too terrified to sleep on Christmas Eve. A fat jolly man was slipping into our apartment to leave me stuff based on my behavior. I was supposed to be happy and grateful – so much so as to leave cookies for the guy. All of this was exacerbated by special showings of “A Christmas Carol” on Family Classics. You mean there are ghosts too? Every rendition of the Dickens classic has always made my heart beat faster and sigh in relief when old Ebenezer made his turnaround.
The Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol thankfully gave me, instead of anxiousness, a sense of relief and a warm fuzzy. This beautifully staged play adds an element of humor that I had not previously seen in the story.

The ghost from Christmas Present (Susan Shunk)Dickens’ tale has become an allegory for redemption and forgiveness through the spirit of Christmas. The hardscrabble lives of 19th-century England have not gone away. It is more in our faces than ever with high definition. Goodman’s production suspends belief for a couple of well spent hours and in turn makes the story more relevant. This is brought to light by a really great cast, musicians, gorgeous sets and meticulous costume reproductions.

This is veteran actor John Judd’s first appearance as the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge. Mr. Judd has the scowling and gravelly visage of a first-class crank. His Scrooge is tightly wound and a first class crank. Judd imbues the character with an undertone of sarcasm and sardonic humor as he suggests the workhouses and prisons as an alternative for homelessness. I most enjoyed Mr. Judd once the character was taken down a few pegs by the ghostly visits. He has wonderful comic timing and the karmic retribution that befalls Scrooge is also done quite well in spite of some visual histrionics. The hellfire tombstone is over the top; I would have preferred the neglected gravestone etched with Scrooge’s name. It’s nice to have money for opulent sets this seems to pander to spectacle-seekers, and was not worthy of such an otherwise beautifully dressed set.

There is plenty of to enjoy in this show thanks to some cast standouts. The ghostly visitors were wonderful and backed by glowing special effects. Anish Jethmalani plays Jacob Marley with fiendish anger. The visual effects contain strobes and projections blasting out of the painting over Scrooge’s bed. The painting looks like Andrew Jackson on the $20, which I found sardonically funny (though I don’t know if it was intentional or not). Jethelmani’s appearance is brief but powerful, especially his descent into the fireplace standing in for hell.

Susan Shunk as Christmas Past gives a delightful performance as she takes Scrooge flying. I was impressed that it was the only use of aerial effects. Ms. Shunk is dressed in Dickensian boy attire and has the glee of a sprite as she reveals the history of Ebenezer’s angst and closed heart. Judd is hilarious as he flounders in the air, terrified and then in awe.

   
Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre Christmas Past shows Scrooge an earlier Christmas
Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) John Judd as Ebenezer Scrooge

The next spirit is my favorite – Penelope Walker as Christmas Present was a joyful and ebullient delight. This is spectacle done beautifully. Scrooge wakes up in a bed laden with shiny wrapped presents and Ms. Walker sprinkling glitter and musical laughter. Christmas Present is seen against a cyc wall exploding with stars and then a street filled with the townspeople. Ms. Walker does a wonderful turn as she portrays Dickens’ indictment of poverty. It’s astounding to see the switch from glee to desperate darkness. Two impoverished waifs seem to crawl up from the earth from under her cloak. It reminds one of the old lithographic styles of newspaper editorial cartoons from Dickens’ time.

Christmas Future is properly ominous – dark, hooded, and at least 15 feet tall. With no face seen or dialogue uttered, I was taken back to my childhood terrors. Christmas Past also leads to the best visual effects of a giant tombstone with blazing letters, perpetuating the terror of being bad around Christmas.

Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) and Tiny TimRon Rains as Bob Cratchit is a standout of comic gifts and subtle pathos. He seems to channel Rowan Atkinson’s ‘Mr. Bean’ when he tries to retrieve his hat without disturbing Scrooge. It’s a comic gem that gets a well-deserved hearty applause. Rains avoids the downtrodden treacle of Cratchit portrayals past. He portrays a family man using the power of gratitude to keep the family spirits aloft in spite of poverty. There isn’t one maudlin misstep in his performance and he plays a pretty mean guitar as well.

I give the same applause to the children in this play. It’s hard to be a child and play a child without being too cute. I call it the ‘awww effect’. I give credit to Director William Brown for keeping this in check and for directing a smoothly executed classic production. It stands on its own merit and is worthy of being an annual family excursion. Speaking of families – you can take yours to this, but please teach the kids that it is not okay to chatter throughout the performance. Childlike awe is expected of children and adults but ask questions over ice cream after the show, not during. The same goes to the grown man with the rumbling bass voice behind me. I send you a whack of the wet soba noodle-hush.

 
    
Rating: ★★★½     
      
  

Scene from A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre Chicago

A Christmas Carol plays through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn in beautiful downtown Chicago. Call 312-443-3811 or log on www.goodmantheatre.org for more details on tickets and performance times. Go early for dinner before the show because most Loop eateries shut down by 9:00pm. There is a nice theatre gift shop as well. Perhaps you can find something for the jolly guy on Christmas Eve…sleep well and Happy Holidays!

Extra Credit:

     

Continue reading

Review: “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (Northlight)

Inishmore-art-banner

Leave it to Martin McDonagh to find the humor in terrorism.

The Irish playwright is infamous for the intense violence and large quantity of blood in his plays. In The Lieutenant of Inishmore he satirizes the constantly splintering Irish terrorist groups that infested Ireland in the 20th Century. The current production at Northlight Theatre exploits the gruesome spectacle of the play, splashing the stage with blood, brains, and plenty of other body parts.

inishmore1 The play evokes both Quentin Tarantino and John M. Synge. McDonagh exposes the Ireland tourists aren’t familiar with, steeped in ancient traditions and convulsed by political conflict. The lieutenant of Inishmore is Padraic (Cliff Chamberlain), a crazed Irish terrorist considered too bloodthirsty for the IRA. The play begins when the men responsible for cat-sitting Padraic’s furry friend find Wee Thomas squashed on the side of the road. While those with a dead cat on their hands try to figure out how to break the news, other “patriots” enter Inishmore, and the body count slowly increases.

McDonagh had a hard time finding someone to produce the play originally; many theatres found it too controversial. It has become one of his most successful plays to date, and director BJ Jones (who has also directed McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara and The Cripple of Innishmaan) nails the Chicago premier of the dark comedy. The success of this production would not be possible, however, without special effects designer Steve Tolin, brought in from Pittsburgh. He presents a myriad of different ways to make blood spray and spurt from the actor’s bodies; it’s not often that the gore of a slasher flick is recreated on-stage.

inishmore2 Cliff Chamberlain is excellent as the bloodthirsty Padraic, balancing the craziness of a killer with the tenderness of man who loves his cats. Kelly O’Sullivan plays well against Chamberlain as Mairead, a 16-year-old fan-girl of Padraic and accurate shot with an air rifle. The funniest two of the show, though, is the duo stuck with the dead cat, the long-haired Davey (Jamie Abelson) and Padraic’s father, Donny (Matt DeCaro). The pair takes awhile to connect, but once they find it they are hilarious. John Judd, Andy Luther, and Keith Gallagher are menacing as a trio of Irish hitmen looking for Padraic. By the second act, the whole ensemble clicks together and the outcome is bloody and wickedly funny.

Jones and his team do a very precise job in finding the inherent comedy in the violence. The amount of bloodshed in the play is ridiculous, and the characters’ reasoning behind it is bizarre. With the help of Tolin and fight choreographer Nick Sandys, Jones arranges scenes that show the folly of extremist violence. And by committing to the dangerous reality the script presents, the cast can be comical while making the audience believe that they have real guns with real bullets.

McDonagh wrote the play in response to some very non-comical real events. In February, 1993, an English gas company was bombed, killing and wounding soldiers, civilians, and several children. As Americans, we have plenty of experience with the horrors of terrorism. By pointing out the ridiculousness of extremist beliefs, the play is incredibly relevant to our 21st Century world. And even though “the Troubles” in Ireland have calmed down since the 1990’s, terrorism is still alive there. In March, IRA dissidents assassinated several English soldiers near Belfast as they went to get pizza. The events depicted in Lieutenant of Inishmore are not as outlandish as they might seem at first glance.

Rating: «««½

Cast and artistic team rosters, including bios, can be found after the fold.

To see videos of this production, click here.

Continue reading