Two versions of A Christmas Carol — one new and one classic — seek to highlight the social-justice message at the heart of the original. Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol plays at Harlequin in Olympia through New Year’s Eve; and A Christmas Carol plays at ACT Theatre in Seattle through Saturday.
Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?
— Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
There’s something so affecting about a Scrooge-like transformation. No doubt that’s why the Charles Dickens classic, along with its many variations, is so enduring.
But how many times over can you see the same story? And is it better to keep things classic, or try to freshen it up with the times?
Two versions of A Christmas Carol offer, collectively, a mix of answers in two very different shows that embrace the classic but seek out a modern meaning. In Olympia, a recent work reimagines two iconic characters into one tale; and in Seattle, an adaptation that’s classic in its own right gets a slight update. Both will run a few more days after Christmas.
Harlequin Productions: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol, State Theater (Olympia), thru 12/31
In Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol, local playwright John Longenbaugh has reworked the Dickens classic to center on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective. A particularly jaded Holmes takes the place of Ebeneezer Scrooge, melding the former’s searching curiosity and keen mind and the latter’s isolation and misanthropy.
Holmes has walled himself off after his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, was slain — by Holmes’s own hand. Now jaded with his work and suspicious of his friends, Holmes has taken instead to hiding out in his boarding room and playing with chemical concoctions; solving mysteries, of a sort, that don’t involve any humans. He’s interrupted when Moriarty’s ghost returns, followed by spirits who remind the detective of his past, give him insight into the present, and warn him of things to come.
As much as he’d like to avoid it, it’s Holmes’s abiding sense of justice that ultimately causes him to revisit his own state of affairs. He’s moved by unexpected consequences on three fronts: the undeserved suffering among his now-lonesome friends; a miscarriage of justice in the court system when the police bumble a case without him; and a perverse use of his new inventions to cause widespread destruction. His future self is so hardened, there’s no chance of a turnaround; but the current Holmes, with the knowledge of what’s to come, is softer than that.
This reimagining also speaks to a different form of isolation, one perhaps more relatable than the classic Scrooge. Holmes here isn’t a miser, exactly; he just wants to be left alone. He’s a misanthrope, growing more so by the day; and the future portends both grave injustice (when his talents go unused and the innocent are imprisoned) and a more sinister isolation. His transformation and reunions with the other characters feel like a relief; and the characters feel human, each layered and compelling.
Harlequin’s production, directed by Artistic Director Aaron Lamb, does a beautiful job with it. The visuals are lush — chiefly in scenic design by Jeannie Beirne and costume design by Darren Mills — and transitions are smooth. Terry Edward Moore’s Holmes is sharp and unassailably rational (likely aided by having played the role before, in the world premiere at Taproot Theatre); and the supporting cast is a strong one. The vision is clear, the jokes land, and so do the warnings.
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol is a clever adaptation and a satisfying transformation, a credit both to the playwright and to Harlequin’s production. It’s another impressive show out of Olympia.
The verdict: recommended for all (teenagers & up).
If you go: indulge in the concessions stand — in particular, the cinnamon hazelnut praline truffles from Olympia chocolatier BitterSweet Chocolates (info here). They’re divine. (Update 1/31: the chocolate flavors have switched, but find them and the full selection at the shop up the street before a Saturday matinee, or try the replacement varieties at the theatre.)
ACT Theatre: A Christmas Carol, ACT Theatre – Allen round (Downtown Seattle), thru 12/28
Every year, ACT puts on a grand staging of A Christmas Carol adapted by the theatre’s founder, Gregory A. Falls. First staged some 40 years ago, it tops the holiday performance traditions of many, right alongside PNB’s The Nutcracker.
ACT’s annual show is usually superb in highlighting the gaiety of Christmas revelers in the town (who can make much out of nothing) and contrasting it with the bitter loneliness of Scrooge who, in making work and money his gods, has walled himself off from all other humans. There, Christmas is a magical, playful season, and Scrooge is welcome to join in the celebration if he’ll let himself.
This year’s production keeps most of the familiar elements — a lamp post drops from the rafters, a ghost comes up through the floor, snowflakes fall, and Scrooge’s desk and stove and sign are just so. Actors enter from every angle of the round to fill the stage. And as always, the cast is packed full of favorites, many of whom (Anne Allgood and R. Hamilton Wright among them) return to the show year after year, plus some strong recent additions in Sunam Ellis and Ayo Tushinde (the warrior duo in Sheathed from Macha Theatre Works), and plenty more.
Despite all that’s the same, this Carol feels different. Both the festive scenes and the eeriness and darkness are toned down — and as result, it feels at once less celebratory and less moody than in past years. David Pichette’s Scrooge is grouchy, but borders on lovable. His version is a joy to watch, but it’s perhaps too easy to sympathize with him. (Peter Crook alternates with Pichette in the leading role.)
Director Kelly Kitchens is new to the show this year, and makes no secret about homing in on its relevance to Seattle’s economically divided landscape. Her version grounds Scrooge’s transformation in the financial, from miserly to giving — a theme which, though always present in the work, doesn’t usually lead it. The usual emotional, or even spiritual, transformation at the heart of A Christmas Carol feels less prevalent in this staging.
As a result, it’s a harder version to invest emotionally in. Scrooge, scared of his future, throws money at the problem. How his view of his community has changed, we’re not really sure. His newfound fans only care about the size of his check, and whether they can turn up again next year. It’s a familiar phenomenon of this time and place, sure. But the transformation doesn’t feel genuine; and I need to feel warmer to Scrooge and his new community than I do for our local PR-sensitive gazillionaires.
It’s also not aided by the more vanilla version chosen here. ACT switches between adaptations from year to year, and this pared-down version skips some creepiness and forgoes a fantastical scene in which a young Scrooge is alone with his books, dreaming into existence characters like Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe so he has someone to play with. It seems ridiculous, or simply over-the-top, while watching it. But this year’s version, sans storybook characters, made me pine for the embellished version. It deepens the sense of loneliness we get from the young Scrooge, and magnifies the elder’s connection with him. In this one, the younger Scrooge has very little to do.
This year’s staging, with a somewhat localized and updated feel, brings a relevant message of giving and what dollars can do to improve the lives of those with less. But with an emphasis on financial terms above emotional change, I’m not sure it packs the desired impact.
The verdict: doesn’t stand out above other takes on ACT’s annual production, but an interesting comparison for those who tend to go every year.
Looking for even more post-Christmas cheer?
Catch Maggie Lee’s sweetly funny The Flight Before XMas through December 29 from Macha Theatre Works at West of Lenin (info here); a special New Year’s Day with Emmett Montgomery’s Sugar Plum Gary (see NWT feature here), January 1 at Vermillion; and some joyous baking with Julia Child in Bon Appétit! at the Rendezvous beginning January 5 (see NWT review here).
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol runs through 12/31 at the State Theater in downtown Olympia. Tickets $53, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom near the entrance to house left. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: $25 rush tickets available to all, 30 minutes before showtime, if any unsold seats remain (info here).
A Christmas Carol runs through 12/28 at ACT Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets $37-$129, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom on the second floor near the elevator (near the main upstairs restrooms closest to the Allen). Financial accessibility: most discounts do not apply to this show. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.