Big City, Big Show

'A Christmas Carol' at A.C.T. enlivens

Magic is a state of mind, created out of environmental conditions and a strong desire to believe. During the holidays, these conditions are at their height, as the massive Christmas machinery works overtime making everything from the streets to the rooftops drip with the glittering promise of magic, all at a time so many of us desperately need to feel it.

In San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theater, located two blocks away from Union Square, is both the progenitor and beneficiary of this arrangement. With its grand annual production of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, ACT has established one of the Bay Area’s most indelible holiday traditions, to which kid-toting families, packs of friends and couples in love are drawn each year.

This year’s staging of ACT’s tailor-made adaptation, written in 2005 by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh, is typically first-rate. Directed by Dominique Lozano, it’s a heady mix of solidly traditional Victorian details, trippy hallucinogenic additions (capped by an adorable chorus line of singing vegetables) and visionary special effects. The show matches heartfelt emotion and warmth with masterful, thoroughly engaging spectacle.

As Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the greatest literary creations of all time, James Carpenter (in his ninth year in the role) never lets us forget the very human, studious and joke-loving little boy beneath the covetous old sinner of Dickens’ classic tale. Scrooge’s redemption, served up with a few literary deviations that fill important gaps in the original, is brought about by delightfully designed spirits, rising from beds, dangling from the rafters and towering over the stage.

As good as the play is, it would be naïve not to recognize that a part of its power comes from the season itself, and that the environment of Union Square—a destination for those hungry for some holiday spirit—is part of the experience. I recommend parking in the garage beneath Union Square and winding your way up the stairs that open onto the square, where the enormous decorated tree looms in front of you.

At one end of the square, as carolers and bagpipers and trashcan percussionists treat revelers to indigenous San Francisco music, a temporary ice rink beckons, surrounded by folks sipping hot chocolate and seasonal adult beverages—dressed warmly, and soaking up the crisp, contagious magic of Christmas.

Rating (out of five): ★★★★½

Sonoma County Library