REVIEW: “A Christmas Carol,” Starring Jefferson Mays—Video On Demand
"...A Miraculous Pageant of Possession and Ventriloquy!"
Well, it’s the holidays, and curling up with some version of A Christmas Carol may be a tradition in your house. Do you binge the classic versions, or look for something new? If the latter, I must recommend Jefferson Mays’ virtuosic and surprisingly emotional one-man show, captured on video and digitally enhanced for quarantine audiences.
Produced in 2018 at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse, this blend of chameleonic craft and scenic dazzle was directed by Michael Arden and designed and conceived by Arden and Dane Laffrey, and proudly wears its stage origins in present form. At the top, curtains part to reveal a casket (Jacob Marley’s, naturally) and, 90 minutes later, close on a cemetery in winter. In between it’s a miraculous pageant of possession and ventriloquy, one actor embodying all the sights, sounds, smells and mystery of Dickens’s timeless fable.
If the bookending images insist on death, the author was urging readers to make the most of their lives by loving and helping the needy; you can’t take it with you. As American pandemic deaths creep toward 3,000 a day, we are keenly reminded that greed and selfishness breed tragedy.
The credits at the end of 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.”
Mays is truly magnificent—a master purveyor of polymorphous perversity. 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. Effortlessly donning and doffing personae, he fleetly juggles narrator, Scrooge, ghosts, all the Cratchits, and dozens more, bringing whole feasts and parties to life with bustling color and details. Although American, he is a specialist in English caricature, all genders and classes: Cockney geezer, posh toff, prig, git, twit, nob, tosser, as well as decent, chipper chaps. He’s a walking explosion of Max Beerbohm sketches and British dialects.
Since the central performance is so warm and dynamic, it’s almost gravy that the visuals are so engaging. In the opening scenes—the miserable Scrooge in his mausoleum of an office and then making his way home to a lonely apartment—the stage is swaddled in shadows and gloom, relieved only by a candle here or there. But with the grisly, sickly blue arrival of Marley and the three spirits who guide Scrooge through past, present, and future, the space blazes with brilliant color, set pieces, and video. The giddy Christmas party at Fezziwig’s is augmented by projections of dancers, and when the Ghost of Christmas Present parts his cloak to reveal the twin urchins Ignorance and Want, their digital avatars caper grotesquely on a scrim. The cinematography (by Maceo Bishop) and CGI garnish are never intrusive, never competing with Mays as the engine of the narrative.
That iconic plot and dialogue have been recycled so many times, you may think nothing can surprise you in a new version. And yet, Mays (who adapted the book with Michael Arden and Susan Lyons) finds fresh corners to inhabit and illuminate. Not many films of A Christmas Carol have given each member of the Cratchits’ humble household such personality and distinction, nor has the party thrown by Fred (Scrooge’s jolly nephew) seemed so festive and bright.
Mays revels in the source material’s crowds and mobs and lists, he loves the promise of plenitude and too-muchness of Dickens, as when he enumerates (verbatim) this orgiastic inventory of dishes surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Present: “turkeys, geese, game, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch.” Mays contains multitudes, and he gives multitudinous pleasure.
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 on the dark stage (lit only by candles) of the otherwise empty United Palace Theater, which even in normal times seems to haunt Washington Heights. “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it,” the narrator says, right before the penny-pinching businessman meets the ghost of his long-dead business partner.
It’s the first of several terrifying scenes that may even be too intense for younger children.
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. This is driven home in an early scene when two men come calling to solicit a donation for the needy, and he politely gets to the point. “What shall I put you down for?” “Nothing!” Scrooge replies. “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.”
This may, in fact, be 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 spread out to support some 50 theaters across the country, each one getting in effect ownership in their own region. In New York, as an example, the ticket income goes to support Theater Development Fund. In Baltimore, Baltimore Centerstage. These are all theaters idled by the pandemic, and in need of merry.
Tickets are $50 (includes unlimited views for 24 hours) Available thru January 3, 2021.
Click here to purchase: https://bit.ly/38fE2lP
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report