A Christmas Carol
After 35 years A.C.T.'s annual production of "A Christmas Carol" is almost as much an institution in San Francisco as Christmas itself. Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh's adaptation, directed this year by Domenique Lozano, blends cartoon-like energy, ethereal staging, sound casting and a few good scares into a "Carol" that is not quite one for the ages but is certainly one for the season.
James Carpenter, an actor who verges on a local landmark (tour buses may soon be slowing and pointing him out on city sidewalks), reprises the role of Scrooge once more. Carpenter's centerpiece performance gives us a singular, childish Scrooge; at story's start his misanthropy comes across as immature stubbornness.
He's a big kid whose temper tantrum has lasted into his seventies, an attention-seeking brat who acts out to cover up his vulnerability. Sometimes he slips and allows for moments of naïve joy: In the production's most endearing scene, he dances behind the spirits' backs, charmed against his will.
This childlike quality makes it easy to simultaneously dislike but sympathize with Carpenter as Scrooge, and when he crashes into the play's moments of unexpected pathos it can be a real shock. In a world where you can't throw an ornament without hitting another version of "A Christmas Carol," it takes an able actor like Carpenter to find the story's emotional center under all the baggage we've piled on it.
The rest of the ensemble seems pressed for time and some actors have only a few minutes to make an impression. Standouts include Nicholas Pelczar, whose bounciness and rubber-faced smile make for a wonderful Bob Cratchit, and Ken Ruta, whose Marley terrifies.
Cherubic child actors as young as eight, picked from A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory program, assemble onstage for song-and-dance numbers, crowd scenes and, sometimes, seemingly just to be there and add some verve to the proceedings.
The cast inhabits a misty, unreal stage environment, a world of gauzy edges and ill-defined borders. John Arnone's bright, cartoony sets give the London streets an almost Dr. Seuss-like quality. Surreal and occasionally disturbing imagery (Scrooge's future corpse takes the form of a faceless mannequin that looks about ready to reach up and grab him any second) appears, disappears and melts into itself.
The stage is so busy, in fact, that it occasionally distracts from the performers. But the flighty, magic-drenched atmosphere of this "Carol" brings a lively playground feel to a story that audiences already know by heart and so occasionally needs such touch-ups.
One or two effects simply don't come off though: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, for example, manifests as a giant puppet whose black cloak opens and closes to unfold new visions for Scrooge and the audience. It's a winning idea, but the actual effect looks unfinished and unimpressive.
In another questionable artistic decision, the Ghost of Christmas Present's feast takes the form of child dancers dressed up as onions and plums who perform a musical number around an incredulous Scrooge; the kids are cute and do a fine enough job, but the whole scene just feels weird and when Scrooge asks what it has to do with Christmas, it's hard not to agree with him. Robert K. Rutt's music creates solid atmosphere, but the brief lyrics slip your mind almost before you've heard them.
Of course, at the heart of it all is still Dickens' beloved story, just as timely and stirring as the day he wrote it. There may yet be a few people immune to the tear-jerking qualities of redeemed Scrooge's joy as he capers through the streets, but if so they're unlikely to have bought a ticket in the first place.
There are reasons that this story has not yet outstayed its welcome, in pop culture or in San Francisco, and A.C.T.'s "A Christmas Carol," despite some missteps, reminds us what they are.
"A Christmas Carol" runs through Dec. 24 at A.C.T., 415 Geary Street in San Francisco. For info or tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org/site/PageServer