God Bless Us, Every One!

I’m not sure there is a more iconic fictional story during the holiday season than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There are so many theatres around me who are playing various stage adaptations of the novella (speaking of which, why not do some others? I’ve been dying to see the Elf musical or the musical version of A Christmas Story? What about White Christmas?) but there was only one production that I had an interest in seeing — a one-man show adaptation starring Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays and directed by two-time Tony Award-nominee, Michael Arden (whose work I’ve seen in Deaf West Spring Awakening and Once on This Island). If I never see another production of A Christmas Carol again, I think I’ll be fine after having seen this spectacular adaptation.

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Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

Admittedly, when I first heard about this production I was skeptical. A one-man show? Really? I figured I would wait and see what other Christmas productions local theatres were doing before I committed and then the reviews came in. It earned high praise from almost every major reviewer, including a coveted Ovation recommendation, and since it’s at one of my favorite venues, The Geffen Playhouse in Downtown LA, why not, right? This particular adaptation is not your typical charmer, it stays true to the roots of the story and is, by all means, a great ghost story. Did you know it used to be a tradition to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve? The king of all these stories is now, of course, A Christmas Carol and through his one-man adaptation, this production really captures the story as though it were relayed to you one chilly Christmas Eve night with full intention to be creepy when the spirits allow, funny when the characters allow, and heart-warming as we so often think of it.

Jefferson Mays is a true gift to the theatre community. This wouldn’t be the first time anyone has seen him take on multiple characters in a production: during his Tony Award-nominated performance as eight members of the D’Ysquiths he endured around 9,000 deaths by the time the production closed.

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Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

Portraying multiple characters in a performance is pretty much Mays’ specialty at this point in his career. Mays offers such an exquisite performance during his uninterrupted 90 minute recounting of A Christmas Carol. Each character has his or her own distinct voice and body language that Mays so effortlessly switches between, it’s easy to forget there’s only one actor on stage.

Aiding Mays’ incredible performance is a perfectly coordinated lighting design and set design. As Mays switches between Scrooge and another character the lighting changes with him to help the change. My favorite example was during the scene in which Marley confronts Scrooge to warn him of the ghosts who will visit him. Each time Scrooge spoke he cowered in his arm-chair, bathed in a warm orange glow from his fireplace, and as Marley speaks Mays will straighten up, arms raised , jaw slack and the lighting will switch to a chilling blue.The set pieces on the turntable move in and out of the scene like Mays is walking through the pages of a book so fluidly. It’s incredible.  The music, both the instrumental tracks and the aptly chosen Christmas themed songs, enhance the story telling. I particularly enjoy the somber version of “Silver and Gold” to further illustrate Scrooge’s descent into greed.

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Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

The whole experience of A Christmas Carol is worthwhile. The ambiance of the theatre as you walk in is perfectly moody. A dimly lit stage with a setting for a funeral. I had a seat on one of the far edges of the orchestra so it was hard for me to see exactly what it was since it was framed so delicately by the dark curtains. As they cut the lights to begin the performance there was a huge bang that caused a handful of people to scream which made me a little nervous, I’ll admit, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a play where so many people would scream and be disruptive that way but they reeled me back in effortlessly. Mays starts his performance in complete darkness and lights candles on the cold and dismal stage. Have you ever seen a better introduction to a chilling tale than having a single man on a stage with a small candle? Surrounded by what feels like infinite darkness? So smart! So well executed!

I can’t more strongly recommend to you a this production of A Christmas Carol. It’s running through December 16th at Geffen Playhouse. You can get tickets from Goldstar or through the Geffen website. And if I haven’t convinced you enough to go, I’ll leave you with this last bit of praise from Becca, one of my best friends, roommate, and frequent theatre buddy, who said she finally understood what I mean when I come home after an amazing show and boldly proclaim “Theatre gives me life” like the true dweeb that I am. We’ve seen a lot of show together in the last three years so I have to wonder how she didn’t get it before….but…..at least she gets it now thanks to this incredible production. Go, go, go, go, go!

If you’re all so miserable, why are you trying to live forever?

I have to be honest here, I saw The Humans on July 3rd and have been wondering what to say about this production because it’s like no matter what words I muster together it can never do justice to the haunting and brilliant play currently running at The Ahmanson.

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Photo Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

The Humans is the 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Play and  Pulitzer Prize finalist (it lost this award to Hamilton) by Stephen Karam that offers you a raw and realistic look into the American family. It explores the haunting reality of the secrets we keep from one another for the sake of the family and the damage it does not only to the self but to the family when it creeps out.

The play builds like a tense thriller. Karam even offered in a conversation with Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D. (which I suggest you read here because it’s a great peak into the heart of this play) that he conceived the idea for The Humans while pondering what keeps people up at night. The whole play feels tense and unnerving like something bad is lurking on the horizon for the three generations of the Blake family who are having Thanksgiving in a new place and nothing has gone according to plan even before the play starts and yet they still persist in spending the holiday together. The unsettling tone that underlies this play is made more pronounced by the incredible lighting design by Justin Townsend.

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Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The true horrors of this play aren’t ghosts or specters but rather the ghosts of each character’s past and struggle to find meaning in existence and survival. I think we can all relate to that on some level; I’ve spent nights wondering how I’m going to get out of debt and wondering if the dream I had in college for myself will ever come to fruition. This play is meant to resonate with you and I’d be truly shocked if it doesn’t. These characters are so realistic that they feel like I’ve met them individually or that this could be my family up on that stage. The conversations sound so perfectly normal, you might think Karam sat down at his last Thanksgiving and just transcribed what he heard and then threw them onto the stage (with a little bit of editing and flair of course).

What drew me in from the first moment of the play was Reed Birney’s performance as the patriarch of this family, Erik Blake. From the way he dressed to his pointed concern about the safety of his daughter’s new apartment, he was so much like my dad. All the positives and negatives to him. I personally identified with Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele), the youngest of the family who never quite seems to think before she speaks and is struggling to make ends meet and realize her dream of being a musician. Sarah Steele captured what it’s like be a young graduate struggling for a dream and the embarrassment of having to tell your family that you aren’t working that dream job yet and are struggling. She tries though, oh so hard. Everyone on that stage is a powerhouse though and I could spend paragraphs singing praises to each of them. Instead, I think I’ll share this quote from Charles McNulty of The LA Times, “If there’s a better acting ensemble working in America right now than the extraordinary cast of ‘The Humans’…I’m unaware of its existence.”

Don’t be fooled by the early lightness of this play. What has you laughing at the beginning may have your heart wrenching by the end. Isn’t that just the way of life? Life is never all comedy and it’s never all tragedy. Family certainly has its cycles but, for the Blakes especially, their genuine love for each other will help them weather the storms ahead but I still have my doubts.  This still comes from one of the final moments of the play and I hope it gives you an idea of the emotional journey you’re in for. Again, major credit goes to Justin Townsend for knowing just how to use these lights to add another layer of meaning to every moment.

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Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacomb

I do strongly recommend this play to theatre lovers. It is perhaps not for casual fans who are looking for their first play to attend, but for someone who already admires the craft you’ll find a real gem in The Humans.  To Karam’s credit, I walked out of that theatre with a greater respect for my family and an understanding of why secrets are kept for so long. Some things are hard to admit. Some things are too frightening to bring to light.  Come for the characters but don’t be afraid to wrestle with your own demons at night after this.

The Humans is running at The Ahmanson in LA until July 29th. You can tickets at The Ahmanson website directly or through discounted sites like Goldstar. One thing I didn’t mention earlier that may sweeten the deal for you — almost every major cast member transferred from the original Broadway run to this touring production which is almost unheard of.  I love shows like this that really make you stop and think about what you’ve seen and how you relate to the material.  Go check it out before it closes or see if it’s coming to a city near you!