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Review: A Ham’s ‘Christmas Carol,’ Without the Honey Glaze

It should, and not just because the film, streamable through Jan. 3, is vastly effective as spooky entertainment. (It may even be too intense for some children.) Based on Dickens’s touring version of the tale, itself slightly altered from the printed text, this “Christmas Carol” is the most fearsome I’ve seen — I mean morally fearsome. It is thus the most faithful to a story that is not merely about the miserliness of one man, but, potentially, of all mankind.

So although there is plenty of ham here, starting with Mays’s snarling, paranoid Scrooge, whose lower lip hangs down to the left as if to provide an exit ramp for his bile, there is almost no honey glaze to sweeten it. Most “Christmas Carol” adaptations depend on that honey, just as theater companies that produce them each November depend on ticket sales generated by a familiar, “beloved” work they can market as family entertainment to finance the rest of their seasons. Even the impressive production from the Old Vic in London, streaming Dec. 12-24, makes the story as festive as it can, often by pelting it with food and music.

Not so with this version, adapted by Mays and Arden and Susan Lyons and conceived by Arden and the set designer Dane Laffrey. For one thing, it insists on emphasizing the act of storytelling, whether Mays is reciting the text as a lively but neutral narrator or portraying, seemingly simultaneously, all the characters in a scene.

As he demonstrated in “I Am My Own Wife” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Mays is an astonishing quick-change artist. A heartier timbre gives us Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, in a flash; a flinging of hands makes an excitable child.

Even in the spiritual world, it takes just a shift of color from the lighting designer Ben Stanton and some increased reverb from the sound designer Joshua D. Reid to complete Mays’s leap from tormentor to tormented in Scrooge’s confrontations with Marley’s ghost. The other ghosts are rendered with similarly effective theatrical illusions, including shadows and puppetry by James Ortiz.

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