Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


In its fourth year at Matrix Theatre, Puppet Scrooge is getting slimmer and sleeker. Gone are the transitions from human interactions to puppet stagings — this year's offering is all puppets, all the time. Written by Mary Luevanos, Fran Marschone, Rebecca Young, Jaclyn Strez, and this year's adaptor and director, Megan Harris, this present-day spin on the Scrooge story feels close to its grim southwest Detroit setting, yet faithful to the warm Christmas tidings of the original.

This year's production clocks in at a quick one hour, cutting some fat from the tale of Pecunia Scrooge, miser owner of a check-cashing store. Harris uses late partner Jacob Marley and the trio of Christmas ghosts to focus on the relatively logical roots of the ambition and shrewdness that, taken to extremes, sapped Scrooge's ability to care about family, contemporaries, and others less fortunate than herself. The bare-bones story keeps the focus on Pecunia's wayward sense of empathy and willing reformation, and each scene included has both weight and clear importance to the plot. Food-obsessed tagalongs Ratso and Rat Ray are promoted to a running gag, introducing each scene with a joke and selected commentary — the device connects the scenes well and likely adds an entry point for younger viewers. Harris's revisions universally benefit the concept and turn in a crisp tale that's easy to follow.

Visually, the production is a delight. Designers Eric W. Maher and Kevin Barron's trio of prosceniums provide an excellent sense of Pecunia actively observing Christmases past and present, while maintaining her status as an onlooker. Their lighting extends to shadow puppetry and charming lit backdrops, although it sometimes isn't specific enough to zero in on Scrooge when her reactions merit attention. Harris's puppet concepts are splendid, from Marley's clattering ghostly arms to the innovative interpretations of the other spirits: Christmas past with Motown flair, Christmas present as an object rather than a person (which I'll admit to not quite understanding, but nevertheless enjoyed the work), and Christmas future as a shape-shifting terror of a specter.

Dialog is pre-recorded across the board, both to ensure that it's audible and to allow the half-dozen performers to manipulate puppets they may not have voiced (lifting restrictions on staging). Some pacing and line reading is a bit disappointing, and the botched-cue risk inherent in relying on recorded audio was borne out a few times on opening night, but the drawbacks of this choice were more than compensated for by its benefits. As the sole puppeteer for Pecunia Scrooge, Stella Woitulewicz handles the daunting task of making a puppet with a fixed expression appear to be listening through a practiced combination of stillness and small movements. The ensemble of Jamison Boudreau, Dan Woitulewicz, Dana McCombs, Gerrick Reidenbach, and Daniel A. Jaroslaw each tackles a number of characters, ranging in type from hand puppets to marionettes.

It seems unavoidable, in the tight Matrix performance space and with so many character-heavy scenes, that some scene changes are a bit lengthy; the use of the exact same music to cover each one likely amplifies the viewer's attention to them. Still, this is a fairly minor inconvenience in a markedly improved Puppet Scrooge. Dropping live actors and dialog presents some inherent obstacles to connection, but capable puppeteering work combined with a kid-friendly, focused, easily digestible story makes the sweeping changes pay off in this increasingly engaging show.


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