Theater Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (starring Jefferson Mays)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on December 3, 2020

in Theater-New York,Virtual


At this time of year, productions about dear old Scrooge are ablaze as usual, even in streaming mode. One-man shows, radio plays, and reruns on film. What’s your favorite? The first widely successful sound version (there were many silent ones) starred Reginald Owen in 1938?; Alastair Sim following in 1951?; or is it Albert Finney in a musicalized 1970 version that holds up rather well. Animated versions have abounded, with everyone from the Muppets to Mickey Mouse to Mister Magoo having a go.

When I think of A Christmas Carol, though, I confess that the first image that comes to mind is Mary Lou Retton doing forward handsprings. In 1988 Bill Murray starred in Scrooged with the character reimagined as a brutal TV executive. His network is airing a new version of the story. We catch a glimpse at a rehearsal with Ms. Retton as Tiny Tim gymnastically throwing crutches aside, backed up by the Solid Gold Dancers. It is sublime.

But a new image has taken hold in my head, and I suspect it won’t let go easily. For now, I am quite sure that when anyone mentions the Dickens story, the first thing I will see is Jefferson Mays staring into my soul in his brilliantly staged one-man version — not a play so much as a dramatic reading — adapted by Mr. Mays, his wife Susan Lyons, and director Michael Arden. This streaming video event — available now through January 3, 2021 — benefits partner theaters all around the United States that have been devastated by the pandemic.

In the press notes, Mays shares how his late parents began the tradition of reading the story out loud every year, doing all the voices. (Which is precisely what Mr. Dickens did,) The love he has for those memories and his family come through in this wonderfully imaginative telling of the tale. This does not mean that it is sentimental or even particularly family-friendly. It is dark, scary, even a little demented at times. The love of the project comes in his depth of commitment. Mays doesn’t so much recreate the story as channel it. We are no longer watching a staged version. We are freezing, feeling around in the dark, trying to regain sanity and sense.

Walking on a turntable, making his way with so little light that he seems an apparition himself, Mays tells us, “Darkness is cheap. Scrooge liked it.” The darkness on stage becomes part of the magic, with lighting designer Ben Stanton acting as a second character, and sound designer Joshua D. Reid as a third. Because it all feels so ghostly, everything feels like a surprise, every change of character, every change of perspective. Set and costume designer Dane Laffrey and projection designer Lucy Mackinnon round out the technical team with neat tricks of their own. All of this is caught beautifully by cinematographer Maceo Bishop at New York’s United Palace.

Mr. Arden keeps everything moving, as if it is all happening at once, keeping us in breathless suspense. Sliding panels, the staircase, clever projections, and other stagecraft are exquisitely timed, enabling the truly astonishing sequence where Mays plays both Scrooge and the ghost of Marley, and you wouldn’t just swear that there are two actors on stage, you would swear that there’s an old miser and an actual ghost! We are giddy with delight every time something shifts. I felt my eyes shining throughout — like a thrilled, expectant child. And isn’t that the point?

photos courtesy of TBD Productions

A Christmas Carol
TBD PicturesLa Jolla Playhouseand On The Stage
for tickets, visit Xmas Carol

The beneficiaries of this event – partner community, amateur, and regional theaters that have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis – will be able to market A Christmas Carol directly to their subscribers and single ticket buyers. Proceeds from ticket sales will be distributed accordingly, providing crucial funding during theater’s darkest hour. The partner theater program is a joint project between Arnold’s TBD Pictures, La Jolla Playhouse, and On The Stage and includes 60 theaters across the country. In addition to Jolla Playhouse, other participants include Actors’ Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse, George Street Playhouse, Huntington Theatre Company, Iowa Stage Theatre Company, Paper Mill Playhouse, Sankofa Collective, South Coast Repertory, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Springfield Contemporary Theatre, Theatre Tallahassee, and Vermont Stage. Tickets purchased via the A Christmas Carol website will automatically benefit local community theaters based on ZIP code. Proceeds from tickets purchased outside of the U.S. or non-affiliated ZIP will be divided and shared with the partner theaters.

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