Paul Morella brings A Christmas Carol up front and personal in an inspired, deeply-felt, moving one-man marathon monologue. On opening night, this consummate actor brought a full-house audience to a standing ovation. That’s impressive.
Morella revives the Anglo-Celtic art of storytelling by shaving some of the hyperbole from the original text about Scrooge, a lost soul redeemed on Christmas Day. Costumed in top hat, cravat and frock coat, striped trousers and tails, the signature style of a Victorian gentleman, (costumes by Jeanne Bland and Pei Lee), Morella greets us at the entrance to the Mulitz-Gudelsky black box theater as himself, the actor-storyteller. He escorts us into a counting house and parlor, cluttered with books, papers and a log in a fireplace grate to indicate a hearth. He is the ubiquitous, easy-going father who doesn’t read from a book, but narrates from memory a ghost story, and seamlessly shape-shifts into a host of roles by subtly changing postures and voices.
A Christmas Carol is dramatic writing begging to be performed. Times were bad in England in 1843, not just overpopulated London. A high child mortality rate meant good population control. A master at conjuring up shock and horror through dark, ironic humor, Dickens wrote the novela to be read aloud in public. He aimed to shame the British upper crust out of their fat complacency.
Morella goes by the book and follows the original structure but makes some brilliant choices. Chapters are spliced together as five staves, an ancient Celtic form of song stanza; the reason it’s called a carol. Also Dickens wrote great one-liners and cliff-hangers at the end of every stave because he wrote in serial installments to be sold to monthly magazines.
Expect sensuous spoken imagery; not crowded stages and lavish pyrotechnics seen in other productions. That’s not the point. We sense the characters and hear the drama of what they say from Morella’s clearly and cleanly articulated recitation. What we’ve maybe not heard before: “…Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire;…” Sound effects, thanks to sound designers Edward Moser and G.W. Rodriguez, fill in at high points to add tension. Most effective are the low-key eerie, screechy-creepy, whiney effects that suggest the supernatural. The dragged clanking chains make real the Ghost of Jacob Marley, the other miser and business partner, seven-years-dead, who warns Scrooge to change his ways or he is doomed to wander restlessly after death. Our imaginations do the rest.
Here are just some of the highs, not to be missed.
In Stave One, Morella depicts a scene, important for one of the major themes: the plight of the poor. In the counting-house, two “portly gentlemen” intrude to collect charity for the Poor and Destitute. Scrooge turns them away by asking: “Are there no prisons?” … “And what about the Union workhouses?” Both institutions are very busy is the answer. And people would rather die. Work houses were horrid places, cold, dank institutions where abandoned children and the poor were abused and often beaten. “If they would rather die,….they had better do it and decrease the surplus population,” Scrooge replies as he demands that he be left alone.
Later, a touching quiet moment is realized when Morella impersonates the endearing Tiny Tim, with limp and crutch and his “God bless us every one!” Tim sings a less well-known carol (Morella’s choice) that trails off with the lyric: “….happy with each other but not well dressed…” And Scrooge is suddenly struck with remorse when the Ghost of the Present predicts that Tiny Tim will soon die and gives back Scrooge’s own words: “If he were to die he better do it to decrease the surplus population.”
The visitations from a supernatural world are scary. The clock strikes one, the narrator tells us, and the Ghost of Christmas Past, a strange child-like, wizened old man with white hair and unwrinkled face, leads Scrooge into his past life. With quickened pace, Morella acts out multiple roles, revealing that Scrooge hates Christmas because his father left him at boarding school. Then one rare Christmas eve his younger sister, who is warm and kind, rescues him. Now deceased, she leaves behind her son, Fred, who is poor but happily married, an important detail. In spite of happier times as an apprentice with Old Fezziwig, Scrooge’s obsession with greed ruins his chances with the young woman who could have given him children and family life.
The climax to the entire piece comes during the Ghost Of Christmas Present sequence. Morella as narrator describes a twinkling-eyed, pagan figure, dressed in green but bare breasted, and decked with a holly wreath, who takes Scrooge to his employee Bob Cratchit’s house to witness the poor but happy family’s enjoyment of each other, the real Christmas spirit. Morella carries in an overturned footstool to re-enact the bringing in of the Christmas goose. Since the poor had no ovens at home, big fowl were taken to the baker’ shop, and roasted for a pittance. Here Morella plays the scene broadly. It’s as if the simple family gathering builds into a Roman baccanal.
But Dickens doesn’t let anybody off easily. And Morella in pin-drop stillness is spell binding, as he captures and holds our spirits to the fire. The message comes through in the narrator’s impassioned description of the allegorical twins, Ignorance, a boy; and Want, a girl.
“Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked and glared out menacing…..”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cries Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” says the Spirit, turning on him….with his own words.
“Are there no workhouses?”
When Scrooge is led to the graveyard by a silent Phantom, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, the reformation takes place. Scrooge in horror reads his own name on a tombstone and hears insulting comments from townspeople. Then, Scrooge awakens from his dream, a changed man, on Christmas Day. Laughing and crying in one breath, Morella as the overjoyed Scrooge, delighted to be alive for a second chance, rolls on the floor and kicks up his heels. The rest of the story connects us to Scrooge’s transformation into a generous benefactor.
Morella is a courageous actor to go it alone. But then again, this commendable one-man show focuses on the free will within everyone. What’s not often recognized in this annual classic is that change can come about through one man’s choice. No outside force is holding a gun to Scrooge’s head. After one night’s nightmare, he decides to change his life and does it. That’s basically the plot that moves from dark to light that comes from within the soul. And the lighting by designer Sonya Dowhaluk effectively cooperates.
Paul Morella is a treasure. Don’t miss his performance.
A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and Performed by Paul Morella
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy