This is the sixth year that St. Olaf's Artist in Residence and Artistic Director Gary Gisselman has directed the Guthrie's "A Christmas Carol." The 43-member cast includes Doug Scholz-Carlson '90 in the role of Young Jacob Marley and Squeeze, recent graduate Maren Bush '05 as Belle and Ella, and Max Wojtanowicz '05, Anna Sundberg '05 and Cassie Fox '06 as essentials, or extras.
Gisselman explained that the essentials are very active in the show, but don't have speaking parts because they are not a part of the union.
Gisselman has had a busy fall teaching at St. Olaf and beginning rehearsals for "A Christmas Carol" on Oct. 24, only three weeks after the opening of "Lost in Yonkers," which he also directed at the Guthrie.
The show, based on Charles Dickens' novella of the same name, has been playing at the Guthrie for 32 years and has become a beloved holiday tradition for many Minnesotans.
While the top-notch character portrayals, energy of the cast and heartfelt message of the tale live on in this year's performance, Gisselman said his wife was surprised by the changes he's made in the show over the years.
Gisselman noted that the opening of this year's performance is quite different. It gets us into the story more quickly. He also spoke of this year's difference in the Fezziwig scene, which he said is the one story that's not as well defined in the novel. "We felt we should flesh it out a bit," Gisselman said.
The fleshing-out of the episode is a successful enhancement that brings merriment and energy to the party scene through extended, elaborately choreographed dance scenes, humor - - such as when the mass of guests erupts in chaos as the Christmas goose, cooked and ready to be carved, evades Fezziwig's knife and then proceeds to leap from the table and run about the room - - and insight into the character of young Scrooge as he runs through the following year's gathering, breaking up the partygoers in his anger and despair at having lost his fiancée, Belle, to his love of money.
Another interesting change in this year's production is that Joe, the old man of the possible future who buys the deceased Scrooge's stolen belongings in a back alley, is played by a woman (Isabell Monk OConnor). This alteration does not detract from Dickens intentions or voice; rather, O'Connor brings to life the squalor and heartlessness of the character.
"Keeping Dickens' voice in the story is always a challenge," Gisselman said, but it is something he and the cast work hard to maintain. "The audience seemed to really be listening this year, paying attention," he said, "so I think that somehow we found a balance this year between the narrative and the way we tell the story."
Gisselman noted that "A Christmas Carol" has reached somewhat of a mythological status in our culture today, and he enjoys the tradition of the story. Speaking of directors who take a different angle on traditional stories, such as putting an old tale in a recent time and city or using modern slang, for example, Gissleman said, "I always think, if they want to do their own spin, why dont they write a play they want to do?"
For Gisselman and the Guthrie, "A Christmas Carol" is not merely another holiday tradition. "We work hard on it, we really take it seriously, we dont say, 'Oh God, not another Christmas Carol,'" he said. Gisselman knows from experience that "other theaters just kind of throw [A Christmas Carol] together as the Christmas production, but that's definitely not the way I feel about it and it's definitely not the way the Guthrie supports it."
This approach of hard work and dedication is apparent in this year's ticket sales - - the entire run sold out and extra performances were added.
Of the production as a whole, Gisselman said he is very pleased. Though he chooses cast members based on ability and he doesn't play favorites, he said "It's great to have [the St. Olaf alumni] there, it's really fun." He loves the Wurtele Thrust Stage, on which "A Christmas Carol" plays, and said of the Guthrie staff, "They're just top drawer, they're great."
"A Christmas Carol" plays at the Guthrie Theater now through Dec. 30.