By Barbara Trainin Blank @traininblank
A common question Paul Morella hears from audience members is why he does his solo performance of “A Christmas Carol” instead of what they view as the “traditional” one, a fully-staged theatrical production.
His answer is simple if surprising to many of them: Charles Dickens, author of the beloved holiday novella, used to travel around and read it out loud – with no actors around.
“Mine is a very Dickensian approach,” Morella said. “But I’m not reading from the text. It’s a fully-realized performance. I’m simulating Dickens’ tours, but it’s not a reading.”
Morella’s production has costumes, sets, evocative visual and sound effects, and many actors onstage.
Actually, it only seems that way: in addition to Scrooge, the stingy, mean-spirited businessman at the heart of the story who changes over time, Morella plays nearly 50 characters.
“But I don’t run around changing hats,” he laughed. “I see myself in all the characters.”
For a more-traditional show at holiday time, Olney offers “Elf: A Musical” on the mainstage.
Another reason for the choice is that Ford Theatre presents an annual “spectacular version” of “A Christmas Carol,” so Olney wanted to take a different approach.
The novella in all its permutations is usually seen as a morality tale, as various ghosts teach Scrooge the value of Christmas and of kindness.
Morella underscores the “ghost” aspect by adding the subtitle “Ghost Story of Christmas” to the title.
Jason King Jones, senior associate artistic director of Olney and producer for many of its shows, including “A Christmas Carol,” speaks of its longevity and popularity.
“It’s been around longer than I’ve been or Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director, has been,” he said. “Audiences who come, love it. Paul is a gifted storyteller, who invites audiences into enjoying the feeling [of the story]. It wouldn’t be the holiday without it.”
Morella initiated his one-person show at Arts Barn. This is the ninth year he’s performing “A Christmas Carol” at Olney, where there are, King Jones said, “many production elements.”
The actor got the idea for the show from one he had done years earlier about Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney. Only then the show was “self-produced,” and he went around “begging for sets and other components.”
Still, even with the Olney production elements, Morella’s “A Christmas Carol” evolved into “less of a theatrical experience and more about participation,” he said.
There are people who show up year after year to see Morella’s take on the Dickens novella, and would even if nothing changed, King Jones said. But there are changes.
For one thing, the theater has been exploring projections more.
Textually, every year Morella changes the sections he includes and those he omits.
“Each year I take it apart and put it together again,” he said. “But it is 99 percent of the original.”
He may “flesh out” different characters and scenes; one year, for example, he may add more to the party scene of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.
One thing that doesn’t change is the atmosphere, which is “very dark and bleak, so it’s more illuminating when the redemption comes,” he added.
The actor admitted that parents will have to use their discretion about whether their children will be too frightened by the ghost elements to enjoy the show. But for him, in any case, the message is more important than the ghosts.
“‘A Christmas Carol” is a great reminder of the power of generosity, the need to be kind,” he said. “As well as for the possibility of change.”
“A Christmas Carol” runs Nov. 23 through Dec. 30 at the Mulitz Gudelsky Theatre Lab of Olney Theatre Center. 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. For more information, call 301-924-3400 or visit the theater’s website at www.olneytheatre.org.