What makes a villain villainous? Actor Reed Sigmund has some ideas.
His stage portrayal of one of children’s lit’s most iconic antiheroes, the Grinch, is Twin Cities-famous. Now in its 11th production at the Children’s Theatre Company, running Nov. 7 through Jan. 7, “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” is a Minneapolis holiday classic in line with the Guthrie’s “Christmas Carol” and Penumbra’s “Black Nativity.” For the past several years, Sigmund has given critically hailed performances. It’s one of the theater scene’s annual highlights.
That’s probably because, dressed in a woolly, hooded green frock, he is deeply serious about it. “I know that you look at it on the surface and it’s like, well, it’s a guy dressed in green fur, in a Santa suit, he steals presents—isn’t that silly?” the Children’s Theatre Company member says by phone. “And I don’t want it to be that, right?”
As the Grinch, he bellows at Max, belts like a bulldog-Ethel Merman mix, and pratfalls toward an emotionally hefty perspective shift on Christmas. Some reviews have noted how genuinely frightening Sigmund can be in the role. Now playing the character for the sixth time, after debuting in 2012, he could spend hours talking shop—not unlike an actor discussing Iago, or Shylock, or Lear.
“I want people to have so much fun with it, but if all we’re aiming for is fun, then we are really losing a tremendous opportunity to connect with people,” he continues, “and to hopefully help change the way they see our world and how they exist in it and how they can affect it and how they can improve.”
So, let’s dig into Sigmund’s interpretation.
“First and foremost, you have to acknowledge that there are previous versions that people are really very familiar with,” he says. There’s Boris Karloff, in the 1966 cartoon, and Jim Carrey, in the 2000 film. “I wasn’t going to try to do a direct imitation of them, and I also didn’t really want to go back and rewatch either of them, just because it’s tempting then to steal, or imitate.”
From those performances, he would emulate “not lines and not voices and not physicality” but emotional impact. “What I spent a lot of time doing was looking at pictures in the book and rereading the book, and then trying to connect with why he is the way he is.”
His take on the Grinch has also countered a Disney-reboot tendency to retcon baddies’ motives by injecting their backstories with mistreatment or injustice. We saw that when a king clipped the wings off Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. Or when Emma Stone’s Cruella had to watch Dalmatians dropkick her mother off a cliff. Really, Sigmund says, corruption is not so neat.
“A lot of us are not shaped, as individuals, by one incident. It’s a billion different moments that helped mold how we see the world or who we become.”
Here, too, he diverges from Carrey’s portrayal. In the 2000 film, the Grinch’ s hatred boils down to traumatic bullying. “I think he had a shaving accident. … And I was like, ‘I don’t want it to be where you can pinpoint that.’ It even says repeatedly in the [Dr. Seuss] book that no one quite knows the reason.”
Taking advantage of that ambiguity, Sigmund says he and artistic director Peter Brosius have rediscovered the character with each production.
“Last time we did ‘The Grinch,’ it was the highest-selling show in the history of Children’s Theatre,” says Brosius, who leaves the company in June and is overseeing his final “Grinch.” “But when I went back in with the videotape, I was like, ‘Oh, there’s so many opportunities to make it better.’ And that’s fun.”
In 2017, the political climate informed the angle, Sigmund says. “While hate has always been present in the world … now, here, it was very much out in the open and fresh in a way that it hadn’t been.”
He switched up some line readings, as with one Grinchy decree: “I must stop this whole thing!” He demonstrates, contrasting a sitcom-friendly delivery with a “more real,” slowed-down growl. “With hatred, when it’s wild and passionate, it’s actually not very scary. When hatred has a very thoughtful intention behind it, that’s when it gets—to me, anyway—much more horrifying.”
Last year, he and Brosius dipped into the Grinch’s psyche. They suggested the cacophony of Christmas—the “NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!” of the book—troubles the Grinch in a deeply sensory way. Interestingly, for some, like Pioneer Press theater critic Rob Hubbard, this sounded like neurodivergence.
“I don’t think it’s something that I disagree with,” Sigmund says. “When originally looking at the role, what I was trying to compare the noise and the joy to was a sunny day when you’re depressed.” As the dad of two neurodivergent kids, he adds, “If you wanted to really deeply analyze the Grinch, I believe that there are some sensory issues there. I believe that he has neurodivergent qualities, and probably social anxieties.”
This year, Sigmund’s twist arrives by way of Max. Watching video of prior performances, he thought the Grinch’s relationship with his dog fell flat. From gruff and distant, it flips to warm and appreciative. “The moment where he says, ‘You’re a wonderful dog, Max’—it seemed like a maybe impossibly sharp turn.”
Here, he says he and Brosius took an epiphany and ran with it: “Even some of the most hateful people in the world will go home and pet their dog.”
As much as Sigmund loves delving into this character work, he admits the show as a whole takes a lot out of him. On top of the slapstick antics (with choreography by Linda Talcott Lee) and vocal fireworks (with music by Mel Marvin, and lyrics and book by Timothy Mason), the Grinch’s transformation is like third-act Scrooge in a full face of green makeup.
“Vocally, it’s exhausting. Physically, it’s exhausting. And emotionally, it is absolutely draining. You go through a kind of cathartic experience every single performance,” he says. That’s 67 shows this season. “But I love it.”
For more information, head to the Children’s Theatre Company website.