The credits at the end of this A Christmas Carol list a cast of 51 characters – 50 of them portrayed by Jefferson Mays. He’s the narrator, as well as Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit, Mrs. Cratchit and all the Cratchit children, the ghost of Scrooge’s former business partner Jacob Marley…even Marley’s Door Knocker, The Dying Fire and An Indignant Potato.
Mays’ extraordinary talent for quick-change artistry won him a 2004 Tony for impersonating three dozen characters in I Am My Own Wife and was demonstrated again in his 2014 Tony nominated performance as each and every member of the murdered D’Ysquith Family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
He achieves his art in A Christmas Carol with no change of costume, largely with just an adjustment in his voice and subtle facial expressions – although for the more over-the-top characters, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, he is aided immensely by lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound designer Joshua D. Reid; and his characters are supplemented by James Ortiz’s puppets, Lucy Mackinnon’s projections, and one actual actor, John Rapson, as the disembodied voice of The Spectre.
But the main achievement of this adaptation, which is available to stream through January 3, is not Mays’ characterizations but his storytelling. We are able to see A Christmas Carol afresh because his major “character” is the narrator, who’s telling the story the way Charles Dickens wrote it, not just the dialogue but the prose (verbatim, with only some editing to keep the performance down to 90 minutes.)
Dickens subtitled his 1843 tale A Ghost Story of Christmas, and director Michael Arden takes him at his word. The production, originally presented in 2018 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, is dark, both metaphorically and literally – all the more so because the particular performance we watch was live-captured October 28th on the dark stage of the otherwise empty United Palace Theater, which even in normal times seems to haunt Washington Heights. Most times, the stage feels lit only by candles. “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it,” the narrator says (and Dickens wrote), right before the penny-pinching businessman meets the ghost of his long-dead business partner. It’s the first of several terrifying scenes (perhaps too intense for young children)
But keeping to Dickens’ original words also restores some of his subtle humor, such as when Scrooge timidly and tentatively asks the ghost whether he can sit down – tentative “because he didn’t know whether a ghost so transparent” could actually sit in a chair.
The resurrection of the original text also underscores the psychological insights that made Dickens ahead of his time, and restores the tale’s explicit strain of what we now call social justice. Scrooge’s comeuppance and uplifting transformation is directed not just at his Bah Humbug attitude toward Christmas, but at his more general opinion of the poor (all too common then – and now.) This is driven home in an early scene when two men come calling to solicit a donation for the needy.
“Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman…
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
He politely gets to the point.
“What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.”
Making idle people merry. This is a good time to bring up an aspect of this production that might well scotch the enthusiasm among some theater lovers, at least initially. The ticket price is $50, plus fees. It’s important to explain that the money is going to support some 50 theaters across the country, each one getting in effect ownership in their own region. In New York, the ticket income goes to support Theater Development Fund. In Baltimore, Baltimore Centerstage. These are theaters idled by the pandemic, in need of merry.
$50 (includes unlimited views for 24 hours)
Available thru January 3, 2021.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jefferson Mays, Susan Lyons, Michael Arden . Directed by Michael Arden . Cast: Jefferson Mays . Lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Joshua D. Reid, puppets by James Ortiz, projections by Lucy Mackinnon . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.