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REVIEW: New Rhythms in A Christmas Carol (Guthrie Theater)

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s 2021 holiday production of A Christmas Carol, now playing in Minneapolis. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Prologue

Re-opening operations during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a work in progress, with many adjustments and surprises. One such surprise came with the opening of the Guthrie Theater’s new production of A Christmas Carol, its first in-house, live theatre production since the pandemic began. Much has been written about this opening, which began with a disruption from an audience member. Because the theatre is a shared space, here are some pre-review comments.

I do not agree with the Star Tribune’s editorial criticizing the audience, or comments made by a fellow reviewer. Yes, there were times that I wished the audience had not reacted to the disrupter. However, many people in the audience – including myself – simply did not know what was going on. I had a limited view of the upper balcony, and could not hear all the comments made by the disrupter. As a result, I only belatedly learned more of the details of what was occurring, after reading news articles and Twitter posts including a video of the incident.

With this limited perspective, I – and most of the audience – first assumed that the disruption was some sort of anti-mask protest. When the woman started yelling inappropriate racial and ethnic statements, the audience appropriately showed disapproval of these remarks by booing. One couple sitting next to me got up and left the theatre, as did some families with children. When the couple eventually returned to the theatre, the woman confided in me that she left because she felt terrified that this might become a mass shooting situation. There was no brandishing of a weapon, but her fear was understandable, given the incidence of mass shootings in this country.

After the situation went on for about 20 minutes, the disrupter came into my view range and it appeared she might be having a mental health crisis. Many audience members near the disruptor got up and walked out. I later learned in a news article that the disruptor was spitting on the persons around her, many of whom were persons of color.

Matthew Saldivar plays Ebenezer Scrooge in the Guthrie Theater’s new production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Jenny Graham.

In light of these circumstances, waiting for the police to come was a prudent move by the Guthrie management. The audience, however, would have benefitted if management had used their public address system during the disruption to let the audience know what was going on and the steps it was taking to resolve the situation.

Comments painting the audience as uncaring were not fair. Most of those in the audience were uncertain as to what was exactly happening. In addition, audience members reacted with appropriate offense to the disrupter’s racist actions and remarks. One should also keep in mind that the people sitting near the disrupter who cheered her departure with the police were the ones who had been the target of her racist remarks.

After the disrupter left, the Guthrie Theater was finally able to present its 47th production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Regina Marie Williams) visits Ebenezer Scrooge (Matthew Saldivar). Photo by Jenny Graham.

The Review

A notable feature of this new production is the script: Artistic Director Joseph Haj, who also directs the play, selected for the script a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ tale, written by Lavina Jadhwani. Jadhwani’s adaptation makes prominent use of narration, including to recap scenes that have just played out. As a result, the slower first half feels a little repetitive, although this improves as the action accelerates.

For those unfamiliar with the story, A Christmas Carol concerns the miserly, wealthy businessman Ebenezer Scrooge. His late business partner, Jacob Marley, shared a mutual love of money with Scrooge. However, Scrooge is now alone: he rejects all efforts for a relationship with his nephew Fred, and poorly treats his employee Bob Cratchit. When Jacob Marley’s ghost appears on Christmas Eve to warn Scrooge of a terrible fate in store for him, the play’s central narrative takes off.

Matt Saunders designed the costumes for the Guthrie Theater’s A Christmas Carol. Pictured: Matthew Saldivar (Ebenezer Scrooge) and John Catron (Bob Cratchit). Photo by Jenny Graham.

I have seen the Guthrie’s Theatre production of A Christmas Carol many times over the years, often seeing the same actors returning in the same roles. This production introduces many fresh faces to the cast, most notably Matthew Saldivar as Ebenezer Scrooge. Saldivar brings a youthfulness and energy to Scrooge. Rather than the stereotypical old man, this Scrooge appears more as a man caught up in a midlife crisis.

In a piece of gender-blind casting, Charity Jones creates a sympathetic rendering of the ghost of Jacob Marley. As Cratchit, John Catron as brings out both the decency and assertiveness of the put-upon employee. Emjoy Gavino as Mrs. Cratchit gives a delightful performance as the mother and wife providing a positive outlook to her children despite their desperate circumstances. Regina Marie Williams is quite entertaining as the Ghost of Christmas Present. If you look, you can also spot Nathaniel Fuller (who played Scrooge in several previous Guthrie productions) in the ensemble.

The state-of-the-art moving sets designed by Matt Saunders transition effortlessly between Scrooge’s business, his home, the Cratchit household, and Scrooge’s nephew’s home. Toni-Leslie James’s costume designs were picture perfect for the 19th-century setting. Less congruent is the wood-like, spindly creature created to portray the Ghost of Christmas Future. This so strongly resembles the character Groot in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies that I kept expecting it to say “I am Groot”. 

For the past two holiday seasons, COVID-19 has prevented me from bringing my grandchildren to see their first Christmas Carol at the Guthrie. Assuming COVID is finally under control, I plan to bring my grandchildren to next year’s production: this is a worthy new adaptation of the story, and a wonderful production for children over five. Despite the distressful pre-show events, Joseph Haj’s new production made audience members feel warm and joyful by the end of the evening.

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s A Christmas Carol breaks out into dancing. Photo by Jenny Graham.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis through December 27, 2021.

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