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: A Love Lost Life (Theatre Building Chicago)

‘Love Lost Life’ Fails to Explore the Brando Family Tragedies

 

David Barnes as Christian Brando-1

 

T.M.R. Inc. presents:

A Love Lost Life

by David Nathie Barnes
directed by Susan Felder
through March 14th at Theatre Building Chicago (more info | tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

“The first two days with Marlon, I pushed him the wrong way, and as a result I lost him. He hated me, and it was my fault. I was too confrontational, too strong . . . All actors are frightened that they won’t give you what you want. It was a sad way for me to learn that even Marlon Brando was scared.

Frank Oz, on directing The Score

“He didn’t want to be treated like an icon. When you dealt with him you had to talk to him like a regular guy—he was very anti-Hollywood. But then the other part of him—he wanted a little gift to be brought. It was Persian caviar, imported cheeses and red wine. He loved it.

–Writer/director Bob Bendetson of Big Bug Man

“My family’s weird . . . We had new additions all the time. I’d sit down at the table with new people and I’d have to ask: ‘Who are you?’ Invariably they were a brother or sister I had never met.”

Christian Brando, to his probation officer

Beau Forbes as James Dean-1During the filming of “Last Tango in Paris,” director Bernardo Bertolucci became so overwhelmed at the range, rawness and immediacy of Marlon Brando’s talent, he momentarily lost faith in his ability to direct the intense, dynamic actor. Anyone who considers writing a full and accurate account about the Brando family must surely have as much trepidation. Even in his own words, Brando’s tangential and unreliable understanding belies a mind at the mercy of shifting moods, aspirations and desires. Plumbing the depths of his mercurial and inscrutable personality would require the expansive and agile faculty of Oscar Wilde and, without a doubt, the built-in, shockproof, shit detector of Earnest Hemingway.

Unfortunately, actor/playwright David Nathie Barnes only renders for us a meager slice of Marlon Brando’s life—with as many holes as Swiss cheese. But for the exception of a few well-written monologues, A Love Lost Life—the Unauthorized Story of Marlon Brando, overdoses on the kind of shallowness and superficiality one finds on E! True Hollywood Story. Especially in handling Brando family dynamics, so much goes unexpressed and undeveloped, it’s hard not to suspect that Barnes either has been cowed into pulling punches out of fear of litigation or is utterly blinkered in his characterization by poor-rich-kid clichés.

More’s the pity, because the talented cast of Theatre Building Chicago’s latest production is obviously capable of taking on more than what’s demanded of them here. Like a reigning triumvirate, Michael Perez, Jamie Asch, and Robert Ashkenas capture Marlon Brando at 20-30, 40-60, and in his 80s, respectively. Perez exudes the young, insouciant Brando, with all the defiant masculinity that awakened the ‘50s out of its white-bread stupor. Asch gives a full-throttle performance of an impossible Brando, nihilistically grinding down his career and personal life until “The Godfather” pulls him out of a rut. Ashkenas poignantly evokes an infirm, bloated and pathetic Brando, wheezing and rationalizing his way toward a regretful and sorrowful exit.

As an actor, Barnes strikes fire with his sullen, edgy interpretation of Christian Brando. Claudia Di Biccari sympathetically gives total commitment to the limited material as his doomed sister, Cheyenne Brando. Director Susan Felder has done her best to pull out humanizing characterizations from the cast. But strong performances alone can’t make up for lack of a dramatic structure hefty enough to pull together Brando’s groundbreaking, but uneven, career and bizarrely troubled family life.

Robert Ashkenas as Marlon Brando age 80 -1 Finally, it must be said, too often Barnes’ writing leaves holes a Mack truck could drive through. Accuracy vs. poetic license–yadayadayada–but nothing should be sacrificed from a drama that substantially informs its action or characters. Among the least of them: Marlon Brando had at least 11 children–legitimate, illegitimate and adopted. A Love Lost Life is written as though Christian and Cheyenne were the only ones. It’s as if, in play’s memory, the other siblings—and their impact on Christian’s mentality—have disappeared down a rabbit’s hole.

Then, there are Cheyenne’s struggles with schizophrenia, which Barnes’ play doesn’t acknowledge until well after Christian goes to jail for shooting and killing her boyfriend, Dag Drollet. The truth is, Cheyenne began having violent bouts of schizophrenia at 16, one of them inducing her to recklessly crash her car–an accident that so damaged her face, all her hopes for a modeling career were ruined. Most likely, schizophrenia influenced Cheyenne’s fallacious tales to Christian about Dag assaulting her, which in turn led to the shooting. Barnes cover none of this in his play.

Also not touched upon: a history of domestic violence in Christian’s own marriages; Christian’s stockpile of weapons, including illegal automatic weapons, that police uncovered in his home upon arrest; forensics which disclosed that Dag had been shot in the back of the head, not in the face in the middle of a struggle, as Christian confessed–that Dag died with his tobacco pouch in one hand and a TV remote in the other.

There’s more, so much more, to the Brando family saga than Barnes can tell or is willing to tell. It’s not just another spoiled-celebrity-children-gone-wild tale; it should never, ever be treated as one. Perhaps the answer lies, not in Brando’s chic home on Mulholland Drive, but in the unexplored chapters of Brando’s family life in Tahiti. Wherever it may be, nothing less than madness itself holds sway over this family. To dramatize this family’s story, one needs a playwright brave enough to head into that heart of darkness.

Rating: ★★

Audra Yokley as Marilyn Monroe

Audra Yokley as Marilyn Monroe

REVIEW: Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol”

Get ready to love Christmas!

 ChristmasCarol-8

Goodman Theatre presents:

 A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Tom Creamer
Directed by
William Brown
thru December 31st (ticket info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Pictured in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, directed by William Brown are (top to bottom) Penelope Walker (Ghost of Christmas Present), John Babbo (Ignorance) and Caroline Heffernan (Want).If you’re not filled with the holiday spirit yet, you will be after Goodman’s A Christmas Carol.  Now in its 30th year, Charles Dickens‘ tale of redemption is brought to life by an all-star cast of Chicago talent, creating a emotional journey through one man’s mistakes that will resonate long after the curtain goes down.

This year’s production begins with a beautiful medley of holiday songs that immediately establishes the idea that Ebeneezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) detests: Christmas brings warmth and calm to a cold, chaotic world. But happiness is not profitable, and the great Yando plays an excellent curmudgeon in the opening scenes. Hunched over books of number and growling at charity workers, he is the portrait of loneliness. Yando begins to transform as he is shown visions of the past and present, and almost immediately the images awaken feelings that have been long buried. A scene between young Scrooge (Andy Truschinski) and his fiancee Belle (Jessie Mueller) is particularly heartbreaking because of the dedication Yando brings to his attempts to change the events that have shaped (destroyed?) him. The journey through his past tortures him, but he cannot escape viewing his own actions – the ultimate punishment. The pain of these moments is heightened by the contrast between the nature of the prison and the characterizations of the jailers: the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Alex Weisman) and Present (Penelope Walker).

ChristmasCarol-1 ChristmasCarol-3
ChristmasCarol-2 ChristmasCarol-10

Weisman, fresh off a Jeff award win for Timeline Theatre’s The History Boys, looks like he is having the time of his life as he flies across the stage, and his jolly nature is a great fit for the early moments of Scrooge’s past, especially the Christmas party at Fezziwig’s. Walker is beautiful in a massive gold and red gown, and she sprinkles glitter with ebullient laughter that forces a smile out of the coldest hearts. As Scrooge’s memories sour, so do his tour guides. The aforementioned scene between Scrooge and Belle stifles the gleeful fire that burns in Weisman, and as Walker reveals the disdain Scrooge’s peers have toward him, as well as the troubles they themselves face, she becomes an almost malevolent force. A scene where she introduces Scrooge to the two children that represent Ignorance and Want, crawling out from beneath her garment to maximum dramatic effect, is particularly haunting, and the perfect introduction to the most terrifying of Dickens’ heralds: the Ghost of Christmas Future. Major props to the Goodman design team for creating the horrifically huge puppet for this last ghost, giving the spirit an overwhelming dreadfulness.

ChristmasCarol-5 The supporting cast impresses, balancing the community’s spite toward Scrooge with the good cheer of the holiday season. The Cratchit family is the heart of the show, and Ron Rains brings a wonderful caring energy as the patriarch Bob, always showing respect to his cruel boss. The scenes in the Cratchit household are brimming with love between husband and wife, parent and child, and actor and script. Fiercely committed, the actors have found the beauty in their misfortune, making Tiny Tim’s (John Francis Babbo) death in the future all the more tragic.

While sadness and loss are major factors of Dickens’ tale, Goodman’s production is filled with humor and moments of pure glee. The party at Fezziwig’s is positively rollicking and Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s (Matt Schwader) Christmas dinner is a joyful celebration filled with music and laughter. Where the show is most successful, though, is in the final moments when Scrooge vows to redeem himself, and Yando skips, jumps, and laughs his way into the hearts of the audience, a humbug no more.

 

Rating: ★★★½

ChristmasCarol-7

ChristmasCarol-9

Continue reading