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Theatre in Review: A Christmas Carol

Jefferson Mays

Theatre in Review: A Christmas Carol The closing credits for this streaming edition of A Christmas Carol -- a joint presentation of dozens theatres from coast to coast - list dozens of characters, noting that each of them is played by Jefferson Mays. At first glance, it seems like a too-cute gag; on reflection, it feels just right, for his is a protean talent, uniquely suited to this occasion. Mays looks for all the world like a figure in a George Cruikshank illustration, with jowls poised over a Victorian high collar, waves of hair breaking on the sides of his head (but not on top), and eyes that shine with innocence when not blazing with righteous rage. He is possessed of a resonant vocal delivery seemingly nursed in the theatre of Henry Irving; consider the relish with which he tears into the description of Ebenezer Scrooge as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner." Mays is, allegedly, in his mid-50s, to which I say, "Humbug!" He is clearly a creature of the 19th century, a point on which no further discussion is necessary.

Indeed, the actor is a one-man Charles Dickens novel, so felicitously does he call up A Christmas Carol's multitude of eccentrics, misers, schemers, and sly wits. His Scrooge is a terrifying, loveless old monster, no more so than when declining to spare a penny for the indigent; after all, he notes with a sneer that is like an injection of ice into one's bloodstream, the poorhouses and prisons take enough of his money, as it is. But, when transported to a festive scene from his youth, his dyspepsia vanishes and he kicks up his heels with unalloyed glee -- giving us a view of the merry youth he once was before disappointment shriveled his soul. Mays is adept at conjuring the full Dickensian gallery: He recoils in fear, cutting a figure from a penny dreadful, to illustrate the Cratchit children nervously awaiting the arrival of their mother's much-anticipated Christmas pudding. Standing straight and radiating self-satisfaction, he becomes a distant acquaintance who coolly allows he'll be happy to attend Scrooge's funeral, provided that a tasty lunch is attached. And, hunched over and gazing into a firelight, he casts a chill as Scrooge's practical charwoman, fingering the profitable linens she pilfered from her employer's deathbed.

Indeed, to the extent that one can make out what Mays is doing, he appears to be offering as authoritative a Christmas Carol as you are likely to get, with all of its eerie apparitions, comic grotesques, and intermingled sorrow and joy thoroughly intact. You might want to remember this during the stretches in which the actor disappears into the overwrought lighting, sound, and special effects show that director Michael Arden has obtained from his gifted design team.

At first, the main challenge is visibility. The opening sequence, which unfolds in the dimmest of candlelight, may as well be a radio play, so tentatively does the actor's face emerge from the shadows. This is actively irritating; no one likes a good chiaroscuro effect more than I, but would it be too much to ask to see the actor's face? Other sequences are marked by banks of fog large enough to encase the town of Brigadoon, crosshatched patterns of light beams that are stunning to behold but don't illuminate anything, and sound effects just loud enough to distract without adding to the atmosphere: During one sequence of holiday festivity, the barely audible sound of revelers amounts to an annoying undertone, leaving one to wonder if the stagehands are having a little get-together in the wings. When Mays takes on the roles of the Christmas spirits, his voice is subjected to various forms of electronic distortion; someone seems to have forgotten that A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, not a Blumhouse horror film. Also in the mix are elaborate interiors that fly in and video projections that pull focus: When Scrooge revisits the Christmas ball thrown by his beloved employer, Fezziwig, Mays must contend with focus-stealing imagery, seen through upstage windows, of young people merrymaking. The omnipresent impulse to gild the holly and ivy proves counterproductive; a fine actor working with a classic text is pitted against technology, and it's often a losing battle.

The design team is among the best -- including scenic and costume designer Dane Laffrey, lighting designer Ben Stanton, projection designer Lucy Mackinnon, and sound designer Joshua D. Reid -- and it's highly likely that their work registered brilliantly when the production was seen onstage its original incarnation at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. But Arden and his collaborators, filming the production on the stage of the United Palace in New York, haven't sufficiently reimagined their work for video. Elements that might have supported Mays in the theatre are cruelly reframed inside a screen; they are transformed into obstacles that obscure the actor's prodigious achievement.

I hasten to add that, in the end, Scrooge's transformation is as moving as ever, a tribute to the actor and to the extraordinary power of Dickens' novella, surely one of the most indestructible works of literature in the English language. In the one hundred and seventy-seven years since it was published, it has been spoofed, revised, musicalized, animated, gender-swapped, sentimentalized, and vulgarized in ways too numerous to mention. (The sheer number of television film versions is enough to make one want to lie down.) In my experience, simplicity is the way to go: To me, the gold standard of Christmas Carols has always been Patrick Stewart's magisterial solo version; all that was needed was the text, a brilliant actor, and a simple, effective lighting design.

We will be awash in Christmas Carols this season: at least two other streaming productions are circulating, with more to come; several radio-play editions are also in the offing. (The Old Vic production, seen on Broadway last year and streaming this holiday season, has a pleasing delicacy about it, along with a fresh take on Scrooge's psychology. And one should never miss an annual screening of the 1951 film, with Alastair Sim's hilarious Scrooge and a production design that resembles a series of Victorian engravings brought to life.) If you are a fan of Mays, you probably won't want to miss this, but be prepared to put up with some overly manufactured magic. --David Barbour

(2 December 2020)

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