Over the weekend, A Christmas Carol opened at the Garden Theater. You know the tale: grouchy man encounters spirits and suddenly becomes generous and loving. But what if that man never actually encountered those spirits? What if, instead, Scrooge’s post-midnight meetings are simply hallucinations of a deranged brain? Why would I ask this? Because I’m convinced that in this version of our beloved Christmas story – the infamous Uncle Scrooge is certifiably insane.
Before you argue, let me explain…
The whole tone of this show is much darker than any other version I have seen. Granted, it’s a show about ghosts and death – but the opening scene of this play includes a group of spirits (wearing what appear to be Day of the Dead masks) surrounding Scrooge (Bobbie Bell) and tormenting him until he is awoken by Mrs. Dilber (Janine Papin). She brings him his breakfast and you realize that, as the one paid to manage Scrooge’s house and affairs, she is his most intimate relationship. This revelation is sad now, but it will become even more important later.
Sometime during this early portion of the play (between Scrooge waking and his day at the office), I swear I heard him mention being visited by spirits. What? Marley hasn’t arrived yet! Does this mean that he was aware of the mask-wearing tormentors? I assumed it was more symbolic than literal but given this line, it appears Scrooge has had other run-ins with ghosts.
After closing the office on Christmas Eve, Scrooge goes “collecting” from three different vendors. Unable to pay their debts, Scrooge takes collateral from each one with the threat of his return for more. Finally satisfied with his day’s work, he returns home.
When Marley finally does climb out of the fireplace, you’ll almost immediately notice something peculiar. If something about the voice and the body seems very familiar — you’re not imagining it. Jacob Marley is also played by Janine Papin- Mrs Dilber. A female Jacob is certainly unconventional. It works, but it makes you wonder why the director chose to portray Marley in this manner. There are several men in the cast that presumably could have played double duty with this role, so was this just an artistic choice intended to rattle some cages? Hmm… Perhaps, but it feels more intentional than simply pushing boundaries. As we’ve established, Mrs Dilber is Scrooge’s closest current relationship. It stands to reason that, after Bell – the love of his life – left him all those years ago, Marley was the only true intimate relationship that Scrooge ever allowed. These two people are linked in Scrooges’s mind, leading me to believe that Marley was never really there. His spirit never really visited Scrooge. This hybrid Marley/Mrs. Dilber is a complete fabrication in the mind of a lonely and sad man.
Then the spirits come… and we realize that these faces are familiar as well…
The three spirits take the form of the three vendors from which Scrooge “collected” early in the play. You have the Doll Vendor, Alaric Frinzi, as the whimsical Spirit of Christmas Past. Jade Jones as the Fruit and Cider Vendor/Spirit of Christmas Present carries herself with such a joyful demeanor that she seems larger than life. Finally, Matthew Zenon as the Watchworks Vendor/Sprit of Christmas Future is super creepy and dark in the latter role.
But back to the point, these “spirits” are once again appearing to Scrooge as people that he knows in life. Based on the vendor’s behavior in the play’s finale, I don’t believe this was somehow a case of guardian angels descending from Heaven to enter his life and ultimately teach Scrooge a lesson. Scrooge hallucinated and the most recent images in his brain played a part in the final vision.
When Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning and begins running through the streets to make amends with those he’s wronged, we see these three vendors watching him from the shadows, talking amongst themselves. At first we’re thinking, “Could they really be the spirits, checking in on the results of their haunting from the night before?” But soon it’s clear that these vendors are just that- vendors. They watched their debtor from the shadows to gauge his mood before approaching. When Scrooge tries to acknowledge their appearances in the events of the previous night, it’s obvious they don’t know what he’s talking about.
And then he just…forgives their debts…
In an almost crazed voice he tells all three vendors, that their debts are forgiven.
Now, I’m used to the final of A Christmas Carol including a frantic Scrooge running around making donations and sending giant turkeys to the Cratchit house, but this is different. Forgiving debts isn’t kindness. He could have given them more time to repay their loans or eliminated their interest responsibilities… But to forgive the total amount outright isn’t a symptom of an improved moral character… it’s insane.
A Christmas Carol will be playing at the Garden Theater until December 22. To buy tickets, visit https://gardentheatre.com/ticket/ or call 407-877-4736.