A BRITISH ACTOR I once knew told me of the struggles he went through preparing a one-man show for London’s West End stage. With a conventional script he could build a lot of his performance on the energy and motivation he gave to and received from other actors in the cast. But in a solo assignment he couldn’t bounce energy and motivation off anyone else. He had to learn how to create them single-handed from inside himself.
Jeff Garrett, a Bay Area Equity actor now offering his dynamic one-man adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz, seems to have found a solution to my London friend’s problem. His Scrooge: The Haunting of Ebenezer exploits a relationship that’s even more central to drama than the interaction of actor with actor—and that is the interaction of actor with audience.
In his time, Dickens was himself a one-man performer, nearly as well-known for staging solo theatrical readings of his works as he was for writing them. Little wonder that his time-tested tale provides a tour de force player like Garrett with an array of eccentric stage characters caught up in playable melodramatic situations.
Garrett doesn’t subtly woo you into the story, he pushes it into your face: you can’t stop listening, watching and feeling. “Marley was dead” is not a reflective introductory announcement. It explodes onto the stage, bellowed out by a messenger who looks like he’s just been struck by lightning. When Scrooge sees his front door knocker transformed into the face of the late Marley, a grisly death mask jumps out of the darkness. Marley’s ghostly groans are the ear-splitting howls of a wounded animal. Garrett has mined neglected elements of the familiar Christmas favorite to remind us that the main body of A Christmas Carol isn’t a bubbly dose of soft-pedaled Victorian spookery; it’s a detailed account of an extended nightmare.
He moves from growling rage to whispered pathos to soaring elation through 31 characters, leaving no doubt about who is speaking or what’s happening to them. He does it with a flexible face, a gift for movement (he has terrific hands) and, most of all, a voice he uses with the precision and force of a singer. In an informal cider and chocolate reception after the show, Garrett confirmed that in preparing a role he depends heavily on sound and listening. “I sometimes rehearse or direct with my eyes closed. If it sounds right, I know it is right.”
And the current production offers some bizarre but fascinating vocal surprises. Fezziwig speaks in a soaring glissando that gives his Christmas dance party the dizzy wildness of one of those half-scary pen and ink Phiz illustrations sandwiched into the pages of your Dickens novel. The Ghost of Christmas Present, usually played as a genial, apple-cheeked ‘yo-ho-ho’ merrymaker, here becomes a strident, lumbering giant who is unmistakably drunk and yet remains firmly in control of everything that happens on his watch.
It’s not your grandparents’ staged Christmas Carol, but it probably sticks closer to the text of the book and it moves with riveting power at the Colligan Theater through December 17th.