A Christmas Carol has been a holiday tradition with Dallas Theater Center for ages, moving this year to the Wyly Theatre from its previous home at the Kalita Humphreys Theater (and before that, the Arts District Theatre, where the AT&T Performing Arts Center now stands). This move has afforded director Kevin Moriarty plenty of space to play with his new version (adapted by Moriarty from Charles Dickens’ classic novella), but the freedom doesn’t always encourage effective choices.
Flying his actors through the air, propelling them up from beneath the stage, and scattering them throughout the audience thrusts us full-tilt into Ebenezer Scrooge’s (Kieran Connolly) world, one that may seen alien to those expecting tradition. Beowulf Boritt’s industrial set wipes away any hint of Currier & Ives. It’s a clanking (courtesy of Broken Chord’s sound design), smoking, sparking, multilevel factory tended to by weary workers of all ages. They are constantly scrubbing, but the grime is so caked on it might never budge—you practically expect to breathe in the grit. Leading the downtrodden is Bob Cratchit (Akron Watson), here a foreman instead of a clerk, who opens the show with one of the chillingly beautiful traditional carols.
The integration of these carols is a marvelous choice by Moriarty. They range from “Carol of the Bells,” a haunting dirge sung by the workers, to a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” rhythmically led by the Fezziwigs (Sonny Franks and Liz Mikel) at their Christmas Eve party. Joel Ferrell’s choreography makes excellent use of the thrust stage and showcases ensemble member Jeremy Dumont’s dance skills more than once.
To make room for these tunes, though, the story is trimmed, compressing Scrooge’s journey into an intermission-less 90 minutes. This leads to surface-skimming with some of the characters—especially the Cratchits—and reduces Young Scrooge’s romance with Belle (Susana Batres) to a kiss-and-run.
Though we see children toiling away in Scrooge’s factory, we’re no longer allowed empathize with the Crachit daughter who’s forced to work to support her family. Ignorance and Want, societal problems typically personified by children, are no longer trembling waifs but hideous, zombie-like creatures. Looking like an extra on The Walking Dead, Jacob Marley (played with relish by Chamblee Ferguson) wails and rattles his chains, stretched vertically as if he’s on the rack.
There is a sense that the characters are overwhelmed by their surroundings. As glorious and innovative as the play’s design is, it overshadows the relationships and reduces the human connection to little more than pretty parcel wrapping. The actors may be in our faces (or laps), but they feel so very far away.
The familiar Ghosts also get reimagined in Moriarty’s hands. Gone is the creepily cheerful Ghost of Christmas Past, replaced with an angelic representation of Scrooge’s mother (Ashlee Elizabeth Bashore). No longer is the Ghost of Christmas Present a commanding, jolly figure; here, it’s a Peter Pan-like boy (Liam Taylor and Tristin Thomas alternate) who playfully backflips over our heads on a (rather noisy) flying track. All I’ll say about the Ghost of Christmas Future is that it’s probably not what you’re expecting.
Moriarty should be commended for dreaming up such a bold interpretation of a well-loved tale. Perhaps next year he’ll settle down and allow his actors, rather than his toys, to tell the story.