One-Man Christmas Carol Taps Into the Story's Inner Terror

The Geffen Playhouse presents a Christmas treat fit for Halloween.

Jefferson Mays stars in the Geffen Playhouse world premiere adaption of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, directed by Michael Arden.
Jefferson Mays stars in the Geffen Playhouse world premiere adaption of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, directed by Michael Arden.
(© Chris Whitaker)

The world premiere of this new adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol draws out the chills and thrills of this ghostly tale while still conveying the joy inherent in the famous parable about goodwill toward all men. Cowritten by its star, Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays, along with Susan Lyons and the director, Michael Arden, this one-man production uses uncanny visual imagery, literary reformation, and an actor's ear for distinguishing multiple characters to shed new light on the perennial holiday favorite.

Without changing costumes or makeup, Mays embodies all the characters of Dickens's masterpiece. On Christmas Eve, coldhearted Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, heralding that three spirits will come to haunt Scrooge. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future project the errors of Scrooge's past and present and how they could lead to a calamitous end. The ghosts remind Scrooge of his optimistic childhood and his rotten relationships with relatives and colleagues alike. He witnesses the struggles of his clerk Bob Cratchit and family, particularly Bob's son, the weak but optimistic Tiny Tim, and discovers what his nephew Fred and friends say behind his back. Inevitably, the Ghost of Christmas Future echoes how his frightful behavior will lead to loneliness and despair.

The three adapters pull out the story's essence, allowing Dickens's words to wash over the audience. By having one actor portray all the roles, the focus remains on Scrooge and how he reflects the greed and callousness of capitalistic society. Only by doing penance and charity can humanity thrive. The story remains timeless because everyone can recognize a little bit of Scrooge in themselves.

Mays is no stranger to taking on multiple characters (he played nine of them in A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder) and solo shows (I Am My Own Wife). He is adept at creating variations in his manner, voice, and posture so that he can bounce between gender and age, carrying on coherent conversations with himself. However, none of his characters feel like cartoons. He takes stock in every separate performance, making them fully human. He captures Scrooge's frosty reticence, his abject terror, and his burgeoning compassion with equal credibility.

Director Arden chooses to position the play as a horror tale. The striking lighting by Ben Stanton abounds with treacherous shadows, lights breaking through both creaky wood ceilings and creeping fog, and rooms lit only by candle. Dane Laffrey's sets, borrowing from gothic architecture, would fit well in a 1930s monster movie. Joshua D. Reid's sound design of loud banging, sudden booms, and rattling chains augment the eerie atmosphere. Lucy Mackinnon's projections add elements of an unearthly realm and transforms Scrooge's world into a light show of spectral spasms. Arden has audiences as terrified as his antihero.

A collaboration between performance, stagecraft, and tightly woven adaptation, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol ingeniously strips the cobwebs from the often-told tale. Instead of focusing on the carol, Arden's production cleverly elevates the cacophony of terror inherent in the story.