Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


It's hardly exaggeration to claim that A Christmas Carol is the juggernaut of holiday theater. Just about everything else is an also-ran, described as "an [adjective] alternative" to the gold standard, hence the popularity in film and theater in seeking out new and different adaptations for the well-worn story. In this reviewer's estimation, the Performance Network's premiere of Christmas Carol'd, by local artist Joseph Zettelmaier, takes its place at the top of the heap.

The other plays I had seen by Zettelmaier followed a pretty traditional structure, but here I was thrilled at his ear for narrative and easy shifts in time and place. In a cast of five, with one actor exclusively playing Scrooge (John Seibert), the other four "carolers" play all of the supporting characters and tackle the narration, which is primarily lifted straight out of Dickens's novella. The result retains the familiar dialogue, but steeps it in the author's rich and crackling prose, and Zettelmaier experiments with tag-team descriptions and overlap that only enhance its cadence and humor. In fact, the most disappointing moments in this production were when the narration was rushed, muffled, or drowned out by other sounds.

Seibert gives his Scrooge a careful and rich transformation from misanthrope to patron of all humankind, taking believable steps backward even after he appears to make progress. He manages to be genuine at both ends of the spectrum, never falling into grizzled old tropes. Zettelmaier gives careful thought to the presentation of the three Christmas ghosts, only one of which appears in the conventional form, and two get a little spookier than some productions venture. The remaining characters are distinguished somewhat by costume touches and changes in voice and accent, but the effect seems dependent on the audience's familiarity with the story — given a less well-known play, I suspect the bevy of characters may have confused the audience. Still, the bustle of these four actors left me not even missing the crush of bodies of a larger production; each scene had a sense of fullness instead of scarcity. In particular, Terry Heck showed an exceptional gift for storytelling that was as strong as her affinity for balancing narration with character work, and she was well used here.

Monika Essen's set, costumes, and props were unconventionally thematic, deliciously traditional, and necessarily spare, respectively. Although this could have given the show an uneven look, the great flow they afforded more than made up for it. Sound design by Helena Byrne made bold and decisive use of bells, and contributed to a teeth-rattling Ghost of Christmas Future, but the sounds were sometimes so loud they overwhelmed the action. The production also lagged at times when the carolers stopped to sing traditional Christmas carols, renditions that ranged from mediocre to passable.

For theaters without the means or space to stage a traditional large-cast version of Scrooge's tale, they would do well to look at Christmas Carol'd. Dickens's cherished dialogue gets a surge of warmth and comedy from the narration, and the story is as faithful as the staging is fresh and sharp. I certainly hope this new script proves to have staying power.


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