Review: Dickens’ ‘Carol’ stunningly reimagined in new streaming play
La Jolla Playhouse is co-presenting online play starring chameleon actor and UCSD grad Jefferson Mays
Virtually every year since 1975, at least one professional San Diego theater company has produced Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but it’s a safe bet that none of them has resembled the visually stunning streamed show being co-presented this month by La Jolla Playhouse.
Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays thrillingly plays more than 50 characters in the one-man, 95-minute filmed stage play that opened for streaming on Nov. 28 and is raising money for the Playhouse and 56 other partner theaters across the country.
The darkly reimagined story mixes the simplest tools of theatrical hocus-pocus with high-tech digitally mapped projections that dramatically transform the Manhattan theater where it was filmed about six weeks ago.
And yet, even if there were zero special effects and Mays was simply sitting in a chair on a bare stage, it would be worth the watch. The chameleon-like actor, who earned his master’s degree in acting at UC San Diego in 1991, has one of the theater world’s most expressive faces. His huge and sad blue eyes brim with emotion and his rubbery mouth contorts in all manners of horror as Ebenezer Scrooge encounters several ghosts one Christmas Eve night. His mastery of English dialects and liquid-limbed physical comedy also serve him well in his quicksilver shifts between dozens of characters in Victorian London, from sweet-voiced Tiny Tim to the selfless Belle to jolly old Fezziwig to the chain-clanking ghost of Jacob Marley.
Directed by Michael Arden and based on a 2018 production at Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the film was billed as a scarier take on Dickens’ 1843 novella. As promised, it begins bleakly, with Mays at rest in an open casket, presumably as Marley, since that is how Dickens’ book begins. Then he becomes the narrator, reciting the story as he uses a candle to light the footlight fixtures on the stage.
For the first 25 or so minutes of the play, candles and firelight are virtually the only illumination onstage, creating a gloomy flickering pool of gray light around Scrooge that emphasizes his isolation. Then, when Scrooge travels back in time to his happy youth with the Ghost of Christmas Past, the play explodes with light, color and special effects. Usually, the audience only sees Scrooge happy at the end of the play when he has rediscovers his charitable soul, but in this version, seeing the young and playfully goofy Scrooge lifts the mood tremendously after a grim start.
The fast-moving story trims down some of book’s longer scenes, like nephew Fred’s party, the Cratchit family’s modest holiday feast and the selling off of Scrooge’s bedsheets, but the heart of Dickens’ tale — charity and goodwill to others can save a mortal soul — has survived.
This adaptation ends in a graveyard, but it’s not what it seems, and viewers who take the time to translate the Latin phrase over the cemetery gates will be rewarded.
The film’s technical elements are stunning, with Dane Laffrey’s scenery and costumes, Ben Stanton’s shafts of cool wintry lighting, Joshua D. Reid’s often-startling sound and voice digitizing effects and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections, which include swirling skies, shadow puppetry and a misty party scene in Scrooge’s memory.
But my favorite effect, low-tech as it is, was how Mays “floats” on air as the various ghosts by simply rising up and down on his toes. Underscoring the play are several songs by songwriter Sufjan Stevens.
The play streams through Jan. 3. Tickets are $50 for a 24-hour rental and can be ordered at lajollaplayhouse.org/show/a-christmas-carol.
—Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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