by Audrey Dubois
I consider myself a Christmas Carol connoisseur. I have imbibed in many variations on the theme in the form of musicals, Mister Magoo, or the Muppets, comparing their merits like the arbiter of taste. Every year brings a harvest of new adaptations of the old story, starring everyone from Mickey Mouse to Barbie. Many would say the reason it has survived to remain a household name over 170 years is that the story is timeless. If A Christmas Carol really is timeless, then what could a modern update bring to the table that hasn’t already been brought?
Swamp Meadow Community Theatre’s A Christmas Carol 2015, written and directed by Chris Brostrup-Jensen, is a modernized adaptation of the holiday classic. This updated version trades the Dickensian time and place for one that hits closer to home, literally and figuratively, at times uncomfortably familiar. Watching the characters debate medical ethics, struggle with minimum wage insurance gaps, and visit a shelter for immigrants is painfully relevant. The actors and the crew form a microcosm of today’s America indistinguishable from reality.
A 21st century setting gives the characters free reign to reference modern media without appearing anachronistic. It’s the subtle language alterations that remove the story from the relative obscurity of the mid-1800s and place it into a more relatable context that blurs the lines between fiction and reality. The smallest details, like the sound of a phone alarm buzzing or the beeping hospital machinery, offer more anxiety to the modern viewer than the ringing of bells or the dousing of candles, and passing references to Lord of the Rings and Star Trek make me feel like these are people living around me.
Even the characters have evolved slightly in this rewrite. Bob Cratchit is renamed Barbara, and is a working mother supporting a family of six on a minimum wage salary. And, though treatment exists, there is no medical insurance for Tiny Tim, a modern day tragedy if ever there was one. In most versions I’ve seen, Scrooge is an archetype who is impenetrably bitter for the sake of being bitter. Here, he is more sarcastic than angry, and the audience can’t help but imagine that he’s using his own passive-aggressive indifference as a defense mechanism. His entire life is built around physical, emotional, and monetary self-preservation, and only when he sees how this mindset affects the past, the present, and the future does he realize what a fragile foundation it is.
It’s true; A Christmas Carol really is a timeless story. Every holiday has its Scrooges, every Scrooge has his Christmas. But times have changed, and so has the sympathies of the audience. The spirit (and the Spirits) is still there, but Swamp Meadow’s play shows not only that it’s still relevant, but why it’s still relevant. While the appeal of the original is a nostalgic product of the past to be passively consumed as fiction, this is an ubiquitous representation of the present, one that we can still change. For the sake of Christmas Future, let’s hope we make the right choice.