The question arises every year: When is the right time to toss the fake spider webbing and carved pumpkins in favor of inflatable snowmen and fiberglass reindeer? Must you wait until Thanksgiving, or is All Saints’ Day a better target to go Christmas tree shopping? Over at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, Jefferson Mays’ one-man version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” opened just one week after Halloween, and given the tone of this particular retelling — which exploits the fact that this is a ghost story, after all — the timing seems perfect.
Over the years, Dickens’ classic has taken a turn toward the sentimental, emphasizing the already manipulative loss of selfless cripple Tiny Tim, while downplaying the sheer horror it took to shake Ebenezer Scrooge from his miserly moneylending ways: First he was haunted by dead business partner Jacob Marley, then by three ominous spirits. By contrast, Mays — who earned a Tony for embodying more than three dozen characters in 2004’s one-man play “I Am My Own Wife” — and director Michael Arden decided that the power of Scrooge’s redemption comes from challenging the calcified cruelty of his bah-humbug attitude at the outset, which demands a more sinister approach. (Film director Robert Zemeckis tried something similar in his 2009 Jim Carrey feature, though the technology wasn’t there yet, and the result was an unwelcome eyesore.)
Here, while the audience finds its seats, the green velvet curtain is half-drawn to reveal an open black casket on stage. The show begins with a fright, using a simple but unexpected trick to jolt viewers into the proper mindset. Plunged into darkness, yet suddenly on edge, they cautiously lean forward in their seats as Mays strikes a match, touches it to a candle, and begins his tale.
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It should be said that this is a dramatic reading, not a play, and Mays has made something of a gamble: He has assumed (in this critic’s case, quite correctly) that the crowd is quite familiar with the bare bones of “A Christmas Carol,” but has either never read Dickens’ novella or failed to do so in such a long time that to perform it here, narration and all, will come as a fresh discovery. For this reason, he is, more often than not, operating primarily as narrator, rather than any one of the 40-odd characters, although audiences should have no trouble accepting him as Scrooge for much of the show, while savoring the sheer quality of the author’s original prose (which has been whittled back, according to the version Dickens himself preferred to read at public appearances).
“Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it,” Mays reminds us, basing so much of the show on that idea. The room may be dark, with its high black walls and shuttered windows, as is Mays’ practically funereal attire (a somber mid-19th-century business suit in lieu of the ghostly white nightgown we’ve come to associate with the character), but the color comes from Dickens’ words. Could any performance paint a picture more vivid than this of Scrooge: “Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”? Why, of course it’s possible, but what a pleasure to re-discover that original description, or to watch Mays become Marley before one’s eyes and have the imagination simultaneously reinforced with the suggestion that his face “had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.”
It’s no simple trick for an actor to haunt himself on stage without coming across as schizophrenic or crazy in the process, and here, director Arden has tapped lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound wizard Joshua D. Reid to augment Mays’ natural ability to shift between characters. When Marley appears, the golden candlelight glow turns icy blue, and as Mays conducts the conversation between Scrooge and his long-dead business partner, he leans back and forth between the warm to cold beams, transforming his voice and body language in the process.
The same goes for the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, each of whom Mays conjures through a combination of description and theatrical trickery. For the first of these, the words “from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light” cues an almost blinding light from the stage, against which audiences squint or otherwise shield their eyes. At other points, projection tricks and the clever use of screens help to enliven a space that is otherwise limited primarily to sliding panels and a revolving stage — although Mays (as Scrooge) is joined at the story’s climax by a Grim Reaper-like figure (that’s Matt Wool beneath the crinoline cowl) at the site of his future grave, suggested by the red light that spills from an open trap door.
If this all sounds rather intense, it’s hardly a bad thing, and true to the spirit of what Dickens himself described as a “Ghostly little book” (in a preface to readers, he aspired, “May it haunt their house pleasantly”). Although little attempt has been made to mimic John Leech’s original illustrations, Mays and Arden have clearly taken the author quite literally. That still leaves plenty of room for merriment — especially at the home of Scrooge’s assistant, Bob Cratchit — and a couple of musical interludes, including a well-placed use of Sufjan Stevens’ “Silver & Gold” at roughly the midpoint of this most excellent 85-minute show.