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Reinventing the season

Greg Johnson’s Christmas Carol sings


Run! Yes, run! Tickets may still remain for UM’s A Christmas Carol, which plays on the Montana stage through Sunday, and you must see it. For your trouble, you will be drawn into a world of complete magnificence that will force everything else from your mind, melt away the edges of reality and elevate your heart as only art can do. You will welcome the season with a range of emotions from the basest to the most glorified. This production takes hold of you from its opening second when the sweet, clear voice of a young boy begins to sing and it launches from there into a bustling, seething, vibrant extravagance that never lets go. The intermission comes as a rude intrusion.

Greg Johnson, in perhaps the crowning achievement of his Montana career, has directed a hoary old favorite as if it had never been staged before, a considerable feat in a Christmas-goo-saturated culture that hauls out the exact same references each and every December.

As you are swept into this world, you have the opportunity to consider what makes theater a wonder, because Johnson’s vision is so inspired that he forces you to appreciate each aspect of the experience anew. In a lively and thoughtful adaptation by John Mortimer, the Charles Dickens story follows the grizzled Ebenezer Scrooge on his harrowing journey into the spirit world where he will come to reflect on the nature of greed and goodness, waste and plenty. At the center of this extraordinary production stands Howard Kingston as Scrooge in a silver wig, old dressing gown and nightcap. Kingston never, not once, looks silly. Just watch the look that moves across his face as he watches his younger self take a first kiss from the woman he was in love with. Standing shocked and alone, he edges closer to the couple and his heart visibly breaks as he relives the lost moment of his youth, breaks for what he never had, what he would later squander. Kingston’s aching humanity infuses the production with a tremor and longing, a finely, fully felt set of emotions that balances the more mystical aspects of the production. When he screams in woe and terror on his cold bed, it’s as if no one has ever let out such a howl before. When he begs to see no more, we ache for him. When he bursts back to life in the final scenes of the play, our hearts burst as well. He carries the heavy responsibility of watching much of the action in silence, called upon to react but not to speak. For some actors, the task would swallow them up, but Kingston holds firm to his ground and it is often difficult to follow his gaze because the effect of watching his face is so bewitching.

The cast, which numbers in the dozens and which really has not a single weakness, fills up Sara Nelson’s tiered set of filthy, industrial London. In grays, blues and brick, Nelson crams many levels and spaces between the sight lines of the stage, giving the nameless chorus members somewhere to stand at all times, whether hovering over the principal players or filling up the background like well-dressed corpses. The company speaks in quick turn as it narrates much of Dickens’ prose in such a way that you never feel you are being read to or instructed, each actor lighting up in the gloom to add another dimension to the riveting tale. The lighting designed by Mark Dean seems to radiate from each body rather than shoot from an elevated ceiling to find the actors. Christine M. Milodragovich’s luxurious costumes—clothing everyone from tattered miners and cockneys to middle-class doyennes—have enormous pliability and movement, which adds to the fresh sense of this breathing creature, the play. The sound, designed by Dan Hartmann, feels modern and at the same time entirely in place and organic to the 19th-century action. Jason Blanchard’s special effects multiply like effortless magic tricks. The design elements combine to delight, shock and scare repeatedly throughout the evening without ever making a fuss of themselves.

A few costumes deserve special mention, including those of the Spirits of the three Christmases, but I hesitate to provide details because they ignite the audience in their novelty and creation. Like much in this production, the costumes feel raw and exciting in a way that adds more and more magic to the play, giving you some of those theater moments you carry with you forever, especially if you’re lucky enough to see this production as a child. The beauty of this Christmas Carol is that it conjures childlike thrill in even the hardest heart.

Remaining performances take place Dec. 9–11 at 7:30 PM with special matinees Dec. 11–12 at 2 PM. At the Montana Theatre in UM’s PAR/TV Center. Tickets cost $15/general, $10/matinee, $8/students and seniors and $5/children. Call 243-4481 for more information.

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