By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In a theatre town where a lavish Citadel production of A Christmas Carol isn’t just another entertainment choice but a bona fide civic tradition, “Bah, Humbug!” is by now the “to be or not to be” of the Edmonton holiday season. Instead of A Christmas Carol Theatre Calgary is doing a production of Little Women this holiday season: that just wouldn’t wash here.
In David van Belle’s four-season-old adaptation of the indelible 1843 Dickens ghost story, opening Thursday on the Maclab stage, there’s a new Ebenezer Scrooge.
John Ullyatt inherits the fateful line, and the dyspeptic snarl, from a distinguished line of Scrooges — starting with Ted Dykstra, who originated the role in van Belle’s 20th century adaptation, back through the 19 seasons of Tom Wood’s Victorian era version. It’s a Scroogian lineage that includes Wood himself, John Wright, Glenn Nelson, James MacDonald, Rick MacMillan, and Julien Arnold (a former Bob Cratchit). And in a similar dramatic stretch, Ullyatt steps into the shoes (and nightshirt) of the frozen-hearted misanthrope thawed by ghostly intervention on Christmas Eve, direct from playing one of Dickens’ most engagingly warm-blooded creations.
For the last three editions of the $1 million Citadel production directed by Daryl Cloran, including the film version of 2020, Ullyatt has been the exuberant Ghost of Christmas Present (“and Presents”!). Which is to say, a riotous, breezy hep-cat in a green satin showstopper suit. In Tom Wood’s A Christmas Carol before that “I wasn’t a regular; I came and went from the show,” he says. Most recently he was Scrooge’s irrepressibly festive nephew Fred, who persists year after year, despite one rebuff after another, in wishing Uncle Scrooge a Merry Christmas, and pressing his luck with Happy New Year and a dinner invitation.
One year Ullyatt played Bob Cratchit, lovable family man and victim of Victorian capitalism. One year he stepped in as Jacob Marley, the spectral chain-rattling version of Scrooge’s business partner, back from the grave with a warning.
And now, in van Belle’s conception, with its post-war song-book of secular seasonal hits, Ullyatt finds himself snapping “wrap it up! at an in-store Santa. Mr. Scrooge is the ruthless, flinty boss of Marley’s department store, on a short fuse on Christmas Eve, 1949. “It’s a great gig!” says Ullyatt who’s been talking to assorted Scrooges about it. “A lot of fun. And hard! Everyone’s been really supportive and encouraging.”
It’s a grand-sized role. “OK, I do leave the stage to go get changed,” laughs Ullyatt. “Fortunately I’m not one of those actors who needs a lot of water; I’m a camel of an actor.”
The Scrooge of this adaptation, relocated a century ahead of Dickens, in retail and across the pond, is younger than the ossified Victorian bean-counter of Dickens’ novella. Still, Ullyatt is unusually young for Scrooge. “I haven’t done anything with my voice,” he says. “Maybe I’ll end up Grandpa Simpson. But so far, it’s just me trying to find my own way through it,” he says of a role that has often downsized Scrooge to iconic grouch. “I’m going through it the way I would any play.”
For Ullyatt, an actor who thinks and rethinks and re-rethinks, this means dismissing any easy way through the part to let himself off the hook. Needless to say he rejects the unsatisfying simplification that Scrooge is “just a bit grumpy,” as Ullyatt puts it. This is not a case of “having a shitty day,” and then, lo and behold, waking up on Christmas Day in a much better mood. “He’s a really nasty person, and I think he has no clue about how much misery’s he’s caused.”
“What’s lovely about this is that there are deep-seated reasons why this man has become the way he is…. As Scrooge goes back (in time to scenes from his life) I think we can see where he lost the joy, where he lost the love, the part where he shuts himself off from the rest of the world, from love, from kindness.”
“It’s a very clear good story. No matter who’s doing it.”
“Actually I think Scrooge is unbelievably, intensely, sensitive,” Ullyatt thinks. “That’s what’s made him shut himself off. He’s grown a hard shell — to protect himself, from poverty, from having someone you love deeply be taken away from you…. And that’s what makes him so delightful at the end when he re-finds empathy and compassion for people.”
He’s thought a lot about Scrooge the signature miser, the “tightfisted hand at the grindstone,” as Dickens put it. “One thing I’ve had to figure out is that he’s greedy not for the sake of greed (per se). He’s like a kind of Doomsday hoarder — to protect himself from being poor, from having it taken away from him.”
Ullyatt, in full self-critical throttle, sighs. “One of the thing that’s challenging for me is that I like being funny. Funny comes easier to me — darkly comic, that’s my thing I suppose — than being mean…. I have to challenge myself not to let my mind or body fly off and do something silly…. Discipline: it’s good for me. My bent is to be hard on myself.”
“I see actors going for curmudgeonly laughs … an easy trap to fall into. It’s what I’m so determined not to do, not to comment on it. The point is, whatever Scrooge does comes from a deeply broken individual. I’m really feeling my way through it.”
Ullyatt admits to missing a little the fun of playing the Ghost of Christmas Present (and wearing the green satin suit). “But watching Sheldon (Sheldon Elter, recently Sweeney Todd in the Plain Janes production of the Sondheim musical) do it is awesome. He’s so great!” The joy of that outgoing spectre is similar to Fred’s, Ullyatt thinks. And Fred is a poster boy for that feeling. “That joy in the face of such an obstacle. What a great way to live your life if you can….”
A Christmas Carol
Written by: David van Belle, adapted from the Charles Dickens novella
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: John Ullyatt, Julien Arnold, Ruth Alexander, Sheldon Elter, Daniela Fernandez, Alison MacDonald, Elias Martin, Oscar Derkx, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Graham Mothersill, Priya Narine, Patricia Cerra, Lilla Solymos, and ensemble
Running: through Dec. 23
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com