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At this time of the year, you can find various versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol everywhere. There is the ubiquitous A Christmas Carol mounted by Theatre in the Park annually, but this show has morphed into something rather different than the quaint little story Dickens penned so long ago. The former NC Shakespeare Festival did a full-stage production of the story for many years, with a full cast and some fine staging, including some very true-to-life London streets. Many a fine film has been made of the tale; my favorite includes a superb cameo by the late Edward Woodard (of Equalizer fame) as a spectacular Ghost of Christmas Present in Clive Donner's A Christmas Carol. But not until recently has a local house done A Christmas Carol just as a story, the quaint and lovely little tale as Dickens wrote it. PlayMakers Repertory Company is now staging just such a presentation in their intimate Kenan Theatre. And to make this a truly inviting event, the show is performed, in its entirety, by PlayMakers legend Ray Dooley.
Ray Dooley joined PlayMakers way back in 1989, the same year I began covering theatre in the Triangle for the Chapel Hill News. His boyish good looks, an amiable smile, and an ability to dive deep down into a character quickly made him a favorite with PRC audiences. We have watched as Dooley has ably performed in a vast diversity of roles, everything from an aging military doctor in Chekhov's Russia to the fabled, magical Uncle Drosselmeier in The Nutcracker: A Play. In everything we have watched, Dooley has excelled. He has dazzled as the Ringleader to a band of misfits in Assassins, bowled us over as the wretched Malvolio, and stunned as the court composer Salieri in Amadeus. As his resume has increased, so too has his following. Now Dooley undertakes another challenge: the entire text (lines, characters, and settings) of an Elizabethan novel.
Dooley is backed by an impressive array of talented fellow PRC members: Michael Perlman directs; Jan Chambers has designed the "simple" but highly adaptive set; and lighting design is by Dominic Abbenante, including a string of Elizabethan streetlights that stretches out over our heads. An impressive, though unseen, pianist warms the audience with an expressive medley of Christmas carols until, soon, Dooley takes the stage and picks up a rather well-used book, and reads from the prologue to Dickens' best-loved tale. And in a trice, we are off. Dooley doffs his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and gets to work. But what Dooley works is magic. For a full ninety-plus minutes, Dooley conducts us on a trip back in time. The streets are cobbled and snow-drenched, the hats of the gentlemen are tall and satin, and the streetlights are gas-lit. We are in London, circa 1865. Not far from the center of the Market District, off on a side street, we find the counting house of Scrooge and Marley, and locate within the now-well-known curmudgeon named Ebenezer Scrooge.
Dooley was animated, but it was an animation born of excitement in bringing us this well-worn but still-shiny tale of a miserly old skinflint who is about to get the shock of his life. We listened as Scrooge holds court in his offices to a string of people, including his clerk, Bob Cratchit; his well-meaning but still-rebuffed young nephew; and a pair of gentlemen whose work is cut out for them in this office. Their jovial greetings of the season, and their graciously phrased pleas for alms for the poor, all fall on deaf ears; when they erroneously try to press the matter, it is then that we see the true colors of Mister Ebenezer Scrooge!
I have in my possession a DVD of A Christmas Carol starring legendary Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart. It is a prized part of my collection. Perhaps it is because I was able to see this performance live, but, whatever the reason, Dooley's performance was better. I kid you not. As a storyteller, Dooley was mesmerizing. He was swift, agile as a boy, quickly covering every step of this stage, creating settings all over London and beyond, with little more than his own voice, presence, and a few well-chosen props. He used (one might even say manhandles) a beautiful old antique table to advantage, creating everything from a house-filling boom of a slamming door, to the tall and rickety old structure of Fezziwig's desk, to a monstrous and threatening tombstone. In the time-honored tradition of the storyteller, Dooley recreated the streets of London, dirty, snow-laden, well trod, and glowing with the lights of the season. Setting his own pace, Dooley was masterful, moving us slowly through a tender scene, or spinning us deftly across the globe as we glimpsed myriad places across the planet where the season is kept. But to my mind, the most carefully crafted bit of stagework came in Dooley's masterful control of Scrooge's own transformation. From a crusty old skinflint to a paragon of Christmas well kept, we saw every shade of nuance. It was a performance to be marveled at, and one not to be missed.
It was over long before we were ready for it to end. In a flash, this audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering. Dooley had taken us all on a journey, and returned us safely to our seats. It is a well-known story that nearly everyone in the audience could quote from memory, yet this retelling was as fresh and new as if we were first reading from a brand new book. The entire performance was, in a word, masterful. In this solo performance, Dooley reminds us (as if we needed reminding) of his power as a performer, his depth of characterization, and his deft ability to move from one character to another. In mounting this play, PlayMakers could have chosen any actor in their company. There is a reason they chose Ray Dooley. And he proves it, every single night.
A Christmas Carol runs through Saturday, December 23, but if you don't already have tickets, you'd better hurry; this show is selling out fast. PlayMakers will offer you a ballot on which you may state whether you think this show should become an annual staple. I could only add my heartfelt, "Absolutely! But only so long as it continues to be played by Ray Dooley."
For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.