OLNEY — Alongside its smash hit production of “Mary Poppins”, the Olney Theatre Center is also running “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” for the holiday season.
Paul Morella, one of Olney Theatre’s favorites, returns from his role as Otto Frank from his previous Olney show “The Diary of Anne Frank” to perform “A Christmas Carol” entirely by himself.
Although “A Christmas Carol” is popularly performed by a cast of characters, the Olney Theatre is unique for offering the experience “the way Dickens intended” by having one person narrate and act out the story himself.
As a result, Olney’s production retains much more of the dialogue and literary imagery described by Dickens in his novel.
This allows the audience to imagine the scenes for themselves, which is a much more fulfilling and immersive experience.
As Morella explains before the start of the play, Dickens intended for “A Christmas Carol” to be told by one person in a setting resembling a social gathering in which the party gathers around one storyteller.
Since most other productions cannot have the claim of being this faithful, the Olney Theatre is proud for taking on a less-oft done style that embraces the holiday spirit of Dickens, encouraging the audience to feel at home.
Meanwhile, this unique story-telling aspect offers a significant challenge to the sole actor responsible for the story, who must narrate and recite every character’s line by himself while engaging the audience.
For this, the depth of Paul Morella’s acting ability is revealed, who narrates the story in a miserly English accent resembling Scrooge’s while slipping in and out of Nephew Fred’s higher-pitched voice, the slow, heavy Cockney drawl of Bob Cratchit, the viperous tone of Jacob Marley, and virtually every other character in the novel.
Morella’s recitation is impactful for its intentionality and timing, making Dickens’ clever word-play stick with the viewer long after a line is spoken.
In fact, there are moments throughout the play when Morella seems to ever-so-slightly improvise some of the timed elements, adding to the humorous and dramatic elements of a line.
As Morella narrates, he also physically acts out the scene, dancing, rolling, hiding, creeping, sleeping, and moving around set props so that the scene comes alive before the audience.
When added to Sonya Dowhaluk’s diverse lighting that ranges from subtle to dramatic, a set that physically remains the same throughout the entire play seems to transform with every scene.
In a peculiar way, Morella’s descriptive narration of the story as he acts it out springs up imagery of the scene that is more vivid than any elaborate set or costume
Making Morella both the sole actor and, in one sense, the set, allows fluid and uninterrupted storytelling not afforded otherwise by physical stage or costume changes.
The continuous acting and narration by one person also allows the audience to build an intimate relationship with Morella, who gradually becomes the masterful storyteller who you would find by rare chance at a gathering.
A memorable scene of the play is Fezziwig’s party, when an assortment of many different characters are described and acted one after another, the quirks of whom come alive on a stage that is radically altered by just a few prop changes, warm lighting, and most importantly, Morella himself.
The actual set itself is a fantastically detailed and jumbled heap of zany 19th century items like old books, candelabras, clocks, instruments, lanterns, and faded carpeting surrounding a period drawing table, lit candles, and an old armchair, making it truly look like Scrooge’s apartment.
Lastly, a constant stream of water vapor puts the finishing touch on the convincingly messy home of an eccentric, which at times looks like the warm steam of a fireplace or teakettle or adjusted to produce heavy, rolling fog in a graveyard.
These many subtle yet important elements add up to an interaction with Morella in the intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab akin to nestling up with a copy of Dickens’ holiday classic.
“A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas”, adapted by Paul Morella is playing at the Olney Theatre Center through December 31 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.
Address: 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney.
Tickets: Adults - $40, children - $20 (check www.olneytheatre.org for details.) Runtime: 2 hours, including one intermission. Phone: (301) 924-3400.