Gifted actor and storyteller Paul Morella has once again donned the coattails and top hat of Charles Dickens to usher us into the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center.
The lobby is decorated to the hilt with holiday lights, trestles of garland winding along banisters and colorful displays of holiday cheer. Morella is right there at the door warmly greeting us like we’re his special chums and helping to usher us in, pointing out best ways to get to our seats. He opens the show with perfunctory announcements, then, assuming the roles of all the characters, carries us through the remarkable journey of his adapted retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas.
Morella first appears in silhouette in the misty darkness, then approaches the warm spotlight to begin. The subdued lighting (Sonya Dowhaluk) uses darkness, shadows and light to create the 19th century atmospherics. In this telling, old (and deceased) business partner, Jacob Marley, gets opening props when Scrooge spots him as a brisk apparition. Suddenly, Morella’s features take on the deathly greenish hue of Marley who foretells the ominous visits of spirits that will appear as the clock strikes one, the same timing for ghostly appearance in Hamlet, by the way.
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Morella next introduces us to the bright and cheery household of the Cratchit family preparing for Christmas the best they can with Bob Cratchit’s meager wages and the soulless encounters with the constantly dour Scrooge. They tussle and bustle with infectious family cheer, Morella bringing them all alive. He inhabits each with such generosity that the audience easily sees what the actor has imagined, whether he’s sharing observations from one person or dancing and tumbling about with glee in what feels like a reverie of many. Morella physically transitions into totally different characters with a wink, a stoop, a head thrown back in raucous laughter or his face grimaced with remorse. At one point, he shows us Bob Cratchit, the caring father and his son, the precious, crippled Tiny Tim, singing a sweet and quiet Christmas carol. A brilliantly poignant moment.
Morella takes you on Scrooge’s journey through his life, past, present and ominous future. We watch as he sees himself as a young man get crusty and hardened with bitterness and disappointment. He wonders if he’s imagining it all, looks about, questioning his reality; Morella is in full command of every moment.
The set is filled with literature and writing mementos, books, tablets, pens, quills, and loads of clocks. It’s like rumbling through a writer’s subconscious. Photo frames hang askew from the ceiling with projections (Patrick W. Lord) showing faded family outlines, landscape backdrops and even gently falling snowflakes.
And that’s the everlasting wonder of the tale – the idea that a seemingly cold-hearted, bah-humbug, miserly man, once confronted with visions of his past and current reality, can have a change of heart, then take a new approach to life. Morella captures this metamorphosis with a wonder that continued to affect me days after seeing the show. When his Scrooge asks imploringly about the future – is this what Will happen, or Might? – it’s like the floodgates for new possibilities fly open in all aspects of our own lives and ways of being. It’s a magical experience.
A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas closes December 29, 2019. Details and tickets
That this show is now in its tenth year and still filling the Lab Theatre to capacity is a testament to how this superb retelling, even in return visits, makes you feel like you’re witnessing it for the very first time. Morella exudes warmth, charm, robust energy, and care that come through all of the characters, as if he’s channeling them. That’s what brings everything to such immediacy – we feel like we’re right there with the story unfolding in real time, because he’s sparked our imaginations to help us see and feel.
You have other options to see A Christmas Carol with lots of actors, flying apparitions and special effects, but no one brings you into the parlor for a basic personal and intimate retelling like Paul Morella.
A Christmas Carol Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. Adapted and Performed by Paul Morella. Lighting Design—Sonya Dowhaluk; Original Sound Design—Edward Moser; Projection/Video Design—Patrick W. Lord; Production Stage Manager—Jack Riley; Produced by Olney Theatre Center; Review by Debbie Minter Jackson.