He may be besting the Borg on movie screens nationwide, but Patrick Stewart is performing a far more spectacular feat in a Hollywood theater this holiday season, breathing fresh life into a literary chestnut we might have thought irrevocably glazed with a century of saccharine.
With a few lighting effects, a few props and a bare, black stage, Stewart relies only on his own artistry, and that of Charles Dickens, to animate his solo staging of “A Christmas Carol.” Paring down Dickens’ text with marvelous theatrical intelligence and economy, Stewart reinvests this oft-told tale with its powerful simplicity, returning it to its roots as a moral tale of uncommon sweetness. It’s artistry of a rare order.
Stewart’s Ebenezer Scrooge is not the sniveling crab of familiar caricature, but a thin-lipped, chilly creature utterly believable in his cool cynicism — there’s a little of this Scrooge in all of us. Switching between narrating the story and playing all necessary parts, from a clutch of Cratchits to the three specters to the clocks that chime Scrooge awake for his visitations, Stewart never lacks energy or inventiveness. That a sole actor could animate an entire party, as Stewart does with Fezziwig’s fete, is marvelous.
But this is not an actor’s cheap tour de force. Although he’s the only performer onstage, Stewart isn’t the star of the evening — that would be Mr. Dickens. Humility is the last thing one expects to encounter at a one-man show, and yet that is just what Stewart so magnificently exudes. Holding high above his head a bound copy of the text both at the play’s beginning and end, Stewart gracefully acknowledges his debt to Dickens’ storytelling genius.
In fact for all his dramatic skill, it is when Stewart is narrating the tale that this evening is most magical. Hearing him roll his rich voice around a description of Scrooge as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” we feel the joy he finds in the perfection of the language itself, and it’s contagious.
There’s a lovely aptness, too, in telling this particular story in a simple manner that sparks the audience’s imagination. For imagination makes sympathy possible, and sympathy is at the heart of charity. And charity, of course, is what “A Christmas Carol,” and perhaps the holiday itself, is all about.