By Pat Launer
It just isn’t Christmas without “A Christmas Carol.” And in this theater-less, socially-distanced, anxiety- and virus-ridden year, there’s a veritable cornucopia of “Carols” to choose from (okay, maybe that’s a mixed holiday metaphor, but you get the idea).
Since it’s such a challenge to get a bevy of Victorian-clad, singing, dancing performers together for a traditional production, solo “Carols” have proliferated — on Zoom, film and radio.
My first 2020 foray with the beloved 1843 Dickens novella was co-produced by more than 50 theaters nationwide, performed by Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays. While aiming to be a bona fide ghost story, the film is so heavy on special effects that they overwhelm the performance and the heartwarming tale of hope, redemption and second chances.
The two local productions on film hewed much closer to what Charles Dickens himself did when he toured the United Kingdom and United States performing his piece.
These two are much more intimate, personal and devoid of an excess of bells and whistles (though there are bells, to be sure).
Cygnet Theatre artistic director Sean Murray has been directing his adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” at his theater for the past six years. This time, he re-thought the piece as a multi-character solo, which he stars in and directs.
As narrator, he doesn’t speak with an English accent. He isn’t dressed in Victorian clothes. He’s wearing a coat and tie, jeans and sneakers. He’s alone in his empty theater, sometimes onstage (talking directly to the vacant seats), sometimes sitting or standing in the house, both telling and enacting the story of mean, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by three Spirits (to show him the Past, Present and What Might Be) one Christmas Eve.
Much of the text, as always for Murray, comes directly from the novella, which had several versions and incarnations itself. In emphasizing the writing, with its detailed descriptions of people and places, Murray has chosen to eliminate a few seminal characters — particularly, Scrooge’s high-spirited nephew, Fred (and his game-playing holiday party, which pokes fun at old Scrooge), and Fred’s late mother, Fan, Scrooge’s adored and adoring sister (who, in her youth, refers to their nasty, if not abusive, father).
This puts the focus more sharply on Scrooge the isolate, alone in the world without any friends or family, which isn’t quite accurate. I missed Fred and Fan — and also the kind but playful Martha, daughter of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s poor, beleaguered employee at the counting-house.
But Murray celebrates the language, abetted by sound effects (but no visual effects), for the three Spirits — mostly reverb for vocal changes, and deft filming, so Murray appears to be two people, in two different places, at once.
Effectively, Murray has his performance filmed in black and white (by TwentyTen Productions), which seems just right for a Victorian ghost story. There’s some musical accompaniment (fiddling by Sean La Perruque, carols sung by Allison Spratt Pearce, with Patrick Marion as musical arranger and producer). The understated lighting (Caroline Andrew) and sound (Matt Lescault-Wood) serve the piece well.
Murray has a long history with the story, going back to the San Diego Repertory Theatre and its many years of “Carols.” In this year’s film credits, he pays tribute to Rep Co-Founders Douglas Jacobs and Sam Woodhouse, “who taught me the depth and love and immediacy of ‘A Christmas Carol.’” And he honors, by name, “all the amazing Scrooges” he’s worked with over the years.
Clearly, the novella is meaningful for Murray, and he relishes the voices and dialects he pulls out of his bag of theatrical tricks to create bare-bones but satisfying storytelling.
Also on film, actor James Newcomb and North Coast Rep artistic director David Ellenstein achieve the dramatic “Carol” trifecta: simple, intimate and very personal.
Some of that is thanks to a newly commissioned adaptation by Zander Michaelson, which employs a wonderfully inventive framing device. There’s even an intriguing subtitle: “A Christmas Carol, As Told by One Man to Whom It Matters.”
The Narrator of this version — which includes all the ancillary characters and locations (the miners, the seamen) — tells us he was there at the time of the events. His identity is kept tantalizingly opaque until the very end — and the reveal proves rewarding and truly touching.
There’s a great deal of heart in this production. Newcomb, an experienced Shakespearean who has performed at theaters around the county and country (and who we’re now fortunate to have among us, teaching at UC San Diego), is taking unmistakable joy in telling the tale.
The filming (by in-house cinematographer/editor Aaron Rumley) uses fairly low-tech effects for the Spirits, mostly shadow and light, but it works successfully, as do the Victorian interior (set design by Marty Burnett) and period costume (Elisa Benzoni).
The genuine emotion sustains the story. And we’re as delighted as Scrooge at the end, as we discover the narrator’s identity, and realize that we, too, can change our ways, can be more generous to those less fortunate, and more appreciative of the things and people we have.
“Loneliness,” this Narrator tells us, “might be one of the most malignant of all conditions. That condition has been a challenge for many. Reach out, whatever way you can.”
This year has brought us perilously close to those two bedraggled children hiding under the robe of the Spirit of Christmas Present: Ignorance and Want. We can all do our part to help.
Any play that can foster self-reflection and self-reinvention is a gift — for the holidays and far beyond.
Streaming on Demand:
- “A Christmas Carol: As Told by One Man to Whom It Matters” the filmed production from North Coast Repertory Theatre, streams from 12/9/20 -1/3/21
- Tickets ($35 per household) can be purchased at northcoastrep.org
- Running time: 107 min.
- “A Christmas Carol,” a film version from Cygnet Theatre, streams 12/14/20 -12/27/20
- Tickets ($25 + fees per household) can be purchased at 619-337-1525 (B.O. open Tuesday-Friday 12pm-4pm) or cygnettheatre.com
- Running time: 68 min.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.