By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
When a frozen man declares, with some heat, that “Christmas, sir, is a cheat!” you’re in the presence of a Christmas tradition.
And there’s magic to it: Ebenezer Scrooge, the poster boy for last-minute heart thaws, comes in all shapes and sizes — and nuances. This we know from the Citadel’s spectacular big-budget version of A Christmas Carol, which is taking Dickens’ indelible 1843 tale of ghostly intervention into its 18th seasonal incarnation.
For the first decade the production’s original Scrooge, Tom Wood, whose adaptation it is, was a sort of humorist turned rancid. You could calibrate the narrative arc by his series of laughs, from a kind of blistering sarcastic mirth through the joyful sounds of bona fide visceral delight. He stomped through London — a kind of stomp/trudge mix actually — as if to ensure chunks of it wouldn’t suddenly pry themselves loose and fly off.
James MacDonald’s lanky Scrooge had terrifying layers of icy subterranean fury about him: . “Secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” as our man Dickens has it. Richard McMillan, even taller and lankier, took over the aerial view of the iconic role, the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” He hurled Ebenezer’s acid witticisms with grim unsmiling satisfaction —like a man dispersing peanut shells instead of the nuts and hoping no one notices.
Glenn Nelson, who’s alternated with all the above, is wonderful in the role, by all reports. And now this wisp of strange Christmas magic: Bob Cratchit, decent, generous-minded, unstoppably positive and chin-up, the human face of Victorian victimhood, has turned into Mr. Scrooge himself, the “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone.”
Yes, my friends, the mild-mannered recipient of a thousand Bah, Humbugs! is delivering them himself this year, in the performance by Julien Arnold.
Arnold, who alternates with Nelson in the production that’s directed (for the first time in 18 Christmases) by a director other than Bob Baker (Wayne Paquette) has turned his naturally jovial, cordial aspect into a portrait of an energetic misanthrope and career skinflint.
His Scrooge isn’t of the desiccated school of Ebenezers; he has a vigorous, juicey, animated kind of malice about him. He isn’t ice, he’s fire. A Scrooge for our time perhaps, who flies off the handle when crossed? Let your mind play around with that thought.
The real beauty of the Citadel’s spectacular production, beyond its ingenious theatricality on a thrust stage, is that Mr. Scrooge isn’t just the portrait of a curmudgeon in a perpetual bad mood, who learns to lighten up. Trust me, I’ve seen many examples of that (with interventions from the tickle trunk). No, A Christmas Carol, at the Citadel, is a real play not a vaudevillian trick. It’s about transformation, against all odds, inspired by a ghostly vision of the past and then forward into a bleak future, to revive a withered sense of human interconnectedness amongst all of us “fellow passengers to the grave.”
It’s still a show for everyone who figures they’ve heard enough of “Merry Christmas” to last a lifetime. When Ebenezer Scrooge declares it, finally, from the heart and after gut-wrenching resistance, your own doesn’t stand a chance.
A Christmas Carol runs at the Citadel through Dec. 23. Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com.