Being a Ghost Story of Christmas

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When you enter the Geffen Playhouse for “A Christmas Carol” there’s not a piece of tinsel or holly in sight. In fact, it feels like you may have entered a victorian funeral home.  The lights are dim, there’s a waft of fog blowing on stage and what appears to be a coffin surrounded by black floral arrangements. It’s spooky. It feels like you’re about to hear a ghost story.

Which you are.  

Charles Dickens’ full title for his novella was “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.”  

Most overly sentimental and saccharine productions of “A Christmas Carol” focus on the Christmas part and gloss over the ghost story - as if it’s just a way to get to the pudding and festivities.  As if these ghosts that haunt Scrooge were sent by Hallmark to mark the occasion. That’s not the approach that director Michael Arden and actor Jefferson Mays embody with this telling. Frankly, it’s downright Dickensian.

After you make your way to your seats, the audience is plunged into complete darkness.  Not simply a blackout but the kind of darkness that’s haunting. It;s darkness as if the coal dust of Victorian London has shrouded the theatre and its set like a thick fog.  After all, as Dickens wrote “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.”

When Mr. Mays strikes a humble match to enlighten us, we’re off on a 90 minute journey through a world possessed by apparitions and led by an actor who brilliantly brings to life every lingering memory, every regret and every character big and small.

Mr. Mays, who if you’re lucky you saw in “I am my own wife,” plays all the roles in a tour-de-force of a performance…To call it a one-man show leaves out the virtuosic work of Mr. Arden and the team of designers.  As transformative and protean as Mr. Mays is - the design matches him. There’s every bit of theatre magic you can think of - turntables, moving walls, projections, brilliant sound design - in lesser hands it’s the sort of design you’d call spectacle.  But here every element is in support of carrying an audience through the tale. A room suddenly morphs into the countryside - It’s surprising, it’s disorienting - a window pane becomes a portal to the past. You’ll find yourself transported - hanging on every word and relishing every last image.

The story will, if you’ve lived through more than a couple Christmas seasons, feel familiar.  There’s Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny-Tim, the ghosts but you’ll also feel like you’re meeting a whole host of characters you may have passed over quickly in previous tellings.  Scrooge, himself, is oddly more miserly and somehow more sympathetic - played less as soon-to-be-converted stereotype, Scrooge’s transformation is hard won and the memories more specific - less tinged by general holiday merriment - as if the light is all the more dear having spent so much time with the dark.

This is a Christmas Carol you definitely don’t want to miss.  While, yes, it is a holiday show - it’s also one of the best pieces of theatre you’re likely to see this year.  As to kids, it’s scary so I’d say save it for the ten and older crowd.

And call me a Scrooge but if I had to guess, this isn’t a production that will fill LA’s Christmases yet-to-come. So catch it now, so you can tell your New York friends you saw it first.

“A Christmas Carol” plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through December 9th.

Photo credit: Chris Whitaker