Theater Review: A Christmas Carol at the Geffen Playhouse

Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

Around this time of year, productions of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol are a dime a dozen, but none is quite like the moody, spooky version currently running at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. This world premiere adaptation by Tony-winner Jefferson Mays (who also performs it), Michael Arden (who also directs it), and Susan Lyons uses theatrical magic and exquisite design to remind us that at its core, this story is a ghost story, and no matter how uplifting the message, ghost stories are intended to be frightening. 

Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

The ambiance is set from the moment you enter the intentionally dimly lit theater. Complete darkness falls as the story begins, and only begins to abate as Mays walks the stage as Ebenezer Scrooge, lighting candles around the space and slowly illuminating himself. Mays performs the story, which is typically an ensemble piece, alone, through a combination of narration and limber acting, seamlessly transitioning between characters. This is not Mays’s first experience wearing many hats—he played nine roles in the 2013 Broadway hit A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, and here he plays nearly fifty. His performance is remarkably engaging, crafting a 90-minute tale that makes a classic story feel new. This condensed version is based on the text Dickens would use himself when he performed the piece, and it flies by while still preserving all important elements of the story.

Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

Most are familiar with the story of A Christmas Carol—Scrooge is a miserable man who enjoys taking his misery out on others, isolating himself from potential friends and family and failing to understand the magic of the holiday season. One Christmas Eve he is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, whose greed during life has doomed him to wander the earth during death, tied down by chains and money boxes. This scene is one of the best examples of the perfect marriage of Mays’s performance and the top notch design elements in this show. As Mays transitions between playing Marley and Scrooge, he repositions himself in his chair, and the lighting (Ben Stanton) illuminates him differently depending on who is playing, casting Marley’s ghost in a blueish pallor while washing Scrooge in warmer tones. 

Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge he has a chance to avoid the same fate if he listens to three spirits that will soon visit him. These spirits turn out to be the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and each provides a different lesson for Scrooge. The scenes Scrooge visits during these visions involve his own family, led by his nephew Fred, and the family of his employee, Bob Cratchit, whose ill son Tiny Tim will soon die unless something happens to change the course of the future. When the final vision shows Scrooge a glimpse of his own future, a neglected grave visited by no one, Scrooge is inspired to rethink his miserly ways and welcome kindness and generosity into his life.

Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

The eerie atmosphere created by the show’s design brings out the horror in the story—the audience jumped more than once, and fog and shadows are used to great effect to emphasize the unsettling aspects of a story that has natural dark undertones. The set (Dane Laffrey) is ever evolving, using a turntable to easily transition between Scrooge’s somber apartment and the various locales he visits on his journey with the ghosts. The sound design (Joshua D. Reid) and projection design (Lucy Mackinnon) are also instrumental in filling out the dinner party scenes that would typically be performed by a group of actors, making you forget that Mays is actually alone onstage. Every moment is meticulously thought out by Arden, and the best part is that while the production is innovative enough to make one of the most well-known stories of all time feel like something you have never seen before, the beautiful message and uplifting ending that made it such a classic are still perfectly intact, sending the audience out into the Christmas season with warmed hearts. 

A Christmas Carol runs at the Geffen Playhouse through December 16th. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. This production is recommended for ages 12 and up due to the sometimes frightening nature. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here

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