“My goal is that they [the audience] will never look at the story the same way again. This is not your Mama’s Christmas Carol.”
In what has become an annual event, Paul Morella is bringing to Olney Theatre Center a one-man version of the Charles Dickens classic, a story that has become almost as ubiquitous a part of the holiday season as the Christmas story itself, giving us terms (“Scrooge”) that have become household words and phrases “(God bless us, every one!”) that are familiar to all. Admitting that the gig means time away from his own family during the holiday season, he looked on the bright side: “I get to have Christmas every day [during the run] with different people.”
This is his fifth year at Olney, but the project began when Morella did a different one-person piece at Arts Barn in Gaithersburg. (That was a bio-play about Clarence Darrow.) Jeff Westlake, who was on the staff at Arts Barn, suggested A Christmas Carol as a follow-on project for Morella. “At first, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea. I wasn’t sure of the best way into the material, wasn’t sure of the angle. But I did some research,” which began, of course, with re-reading the work, and “I was blown away. I thought I knew it.” What he found was a story that is darker and less sentimental than it is often presented, and a character, in Ebenezer Scrooge, who is less than a caricature of greed. “I was floored when I re-read it.”
Describing the 19th century classic as a “powerful, resonant, up-to-the-moment story,” Morella told me that audience members, struck by an aspect of the Dickens original that had remained unfamiliar to them, the plethora of dramatizations, from Lionel Barrymore to Bill Murray, notwithstanding, will ask him, “Is that really in there?” “What makes this version unique is that this is the original. It’s the opposite direction from embroidering and embellishing, and it lets the audience bring their imaginations to bear.”
That first iteration in Gaithersburg was self produced. The imperative to keep costs reasonable, though, yielded things that he has retained, even now that he has a budget. “I didn’t have funds for front-of-house, so I greeted people, took tickets, seated people,” said Morella. “When they left, I’d say, ‘Happy Holidays.’” Jim Petosa, Artistic Director of Olney, had space that was sitting vacant and expressed interest. The following year, the project moved there as a sort of experiment. “I was not sure what to expect. We took it apart and put it back together again — it was not just a remount.”
Morella considered different ways to present the story, including playing Dickens, who famously read the text during many public appearances. What he settled on was not playing Dickens, but relying on Dickens in a different way, concluding that “the narrative really lends itself to being delivered as a performance piece. It’s narrative driven. It has an arc that works very well theatrically. I thought, I’d be a fool to let anyone but Dickens do the talking.” The result is “like a pop-up book come to life” and is (in contrast to many dramatizations of the story) 99% directly from Dickens’ text, he estimates. He has listened to full-text recordings (he mentioned versions read by Jim Dale and Tim Curry) and says they run about three hours. His version runs two, including an intermission. (Dickens on tour, he told me, boiled it down to a “greatest hits” version of highlights from the book, which lasted 65-70 minutes.)
The 1% of Morella’s show that isn’t from Dickens, by the way, is the carol sung by Tiny Tim, which isn’t identified by Dickens. “I found this fabulous, obscure Victorian carol.” Morella believes that it actually may have inspired the “God bless us, every one” line. “It’s so haunting and powerful.” It’s not the festive carol that is usually put into the dinner scene at the Cratchit house, but it provides a “wonderful, haunting feeling at that moment. It’s a great piece to put in there.”
Another unusual aspect of Morella’s A Christmas Carol is that it changes every year. Each year, he asks himself, “what can I put in, what should I take out, what speaks to the present moment, what resonates now” — and what peripheral characters would it be useful to explore in greater depth.
“I had copies of the book sitting around; we got them as kids,” Morella told me when I asked if he remembered his first exposure. He observed that for him, like many people, the story became a yearly ritual, one that was re-energized for him when he had children of his own. People have seen a lot of different versions and have their favorites. His, he told me, is the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim.
He then mentioned a version that has a particular place in my heart, the musical cartoon version featuring, believe it or not, Mr Magoo. (I think its success spawned a short-lived series in which Magoo played the lead in other classics, such as The Count of Monte Cristo.) Morella even pointed to the Charwomen scene in that version, remarking that he drew from it, admiring its combination of humor and the macabre, and pointing out that the scene used a lot of Dickens’ text. And, “it didn’t have the sentimentality that other versions have.”
“It always works great in that space.” Morella said of Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab: “It’s so intimate. The acoustics are perfect. You can hear every little sound. It works well” that the story is so close — it becomes spooky, he said. He noted that Olney has gotten into the habit of doing a big holiday musical (this year it’s The Little Mermaid), to which A Christmas Carol presents a “counterpoint to the cast of thousands and the [more impressive] production elements.” He thinks it’s cool that there is a “one-person piece on the other side of the campus. It creates a kind of dialogue between one and the other.” This year, the lobby, he told me, is becoming “more Victorian” and the experience for the audience “more immersive,” contrasting to the low-budget beginnings of the project.
We talked a bit about the demands of holding the stage by yourself for the best part of two hours. Morella’s performance weeks begin easily enough, with only four or five shows, but will ramp up to eight-show weeks that include two-show days. (On those two-show days, he admitted that he has on occasion thought to himself, “Wait, have I already said this?”) He spoke of the need to stay healthy, physically and vocally — his 47 characters range from big, hearty men to children. Still, on days when he may not be looking enthusiastically forward to the prospect of a twofer, when he knows “it’s going to take a lot of energy,” he will “get on the ride,” and he finds himself “energized by the people and the story and it takes off.” The result? “Exhilarating exhaustion.”
Interestingly, he said that the leadership fluctuations at Olney have, for him, had an upside: he’s gotten the different perspectives of the three Olney artistic leaders who have overlapped his residency, the result being that the piece has been “refracted through different prisms.” Now that it’s become a yearly thing, it’s also something that he thinks about during the course of the year; at this time of year, though, it becomes “all-encompassing.”
Morella drew a fascinating comparison between Dickens and Shakespeare, and the way each will juxtapose a comedic scene with one that is dramatic, even tragic, or an intimate scene with one that involves many characters. Each presents characters and situations that are emotionally rich.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL: A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS
Closes December 28, 2014
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Sandy-Spring Road
2 hours, 1 intermission
Tickets: $18 – $36
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Still more interesting is Morella’s view of Scrooge. He’s not a “curmudgeonly, miserly character as he is so often perceived. He is a living, flesh-and-blood person, a real person who has lost his moral compass. His journey isn’t one of an outrageous, over-the-top crank.” Rather, there is a lot in Scrooge that many of us might identify with.
Who among us has never turned his back on someone in need, asking for help? Morella points to the first scene, with the portly gentlemen asking Scrooge for a donation, which generally ends with Scrooge saying, “Let them do it [die] and decrease the surplus population.” The original goes further, Morella noted, as Scrooge makes the excuse, “It’s not my business.” “He’s a pragmatic businessman.” Dickens, who so often attached his brilliant narrative skills and rich characterizations to progressive social concerns, gave us a story that is “not just a fun holiday extravaganza: it’s a story with a powerful social message: The clock is ticking for all of us.”
Before letting Morella go, I asked about his mother, Connie Morella, the eight-term congresswoman from Montgomery County, and how she’s doing and what she’s up to. “She’s doing great; she’s still very active. She lived in Paris for a number of years.” (After her loss in 2002 to Chris Van Hollen, she was appointed by President George W. Bush Ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.) “She liked to joke that she went from Parris Glendening to Paris, France.”
At age 83, she still teaches at AU and is a commissioner with the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees U.S. memorials and cemeteries in foreign countries. “She’s active and involved with her projects.” She was also one of that nearly extinct breed, the moderate. “It’s a shame. That’s what ultimately led to her downfall, in some ways. She voted her conscience and her constituency. She was the worst Republican, in terms of crossing party lines. But she was very proactive and responsive regarding constituent service. She built her reputation on being genuine.” People come up to Paul Morella all the time, he told me, and tell him, “We really miss her. She was the only Republican I ever voted for.”
Connie Morella’s district used to include Olney. “That was one of the changes the year she lost to Van Hollen. They gerrymandered the district, brought in part of PG County,” and lobbed off Olney and northern Montgomery County, creating a “squiggly snake.” Paul Morella said, though, frustrating as that must have been, she was also “flattered” that so much effort was expended to target her and to pick her off.
We ended where we began, with his A Christmas Carol. “It’s not Disney’s A Christmas Carol. It’s dark and bleak, which makes it more brilliant when it becomes radiant,” Morella said. It’s his mission, he told me, to spread the Gospel of Dickens in its original form, and the best way, the simplest way, to do that is to get “out of the way and let Dickens take center stage.”
A CHRISTMAS CAROL: A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS (Olney)
Closes Dec 28
Letricia Loftin . DCMetroTheaterArts heartwarming, and joyful
Steve Charing . MDTheatreGuide captivating…theatre at its best