On a nearly bare stage, a Victorian man in rags and patches begins with a Christmas song, some philosophical musings, a little sleight of hand, and the opening lines of a well-worn novella. He’s part clown, part raconteur.
Within minutes, the storyteller — the remarkable Anthony Lawton — has merged with his tale of a hard-hearted capitalist and cynic who’s transformed into a model of Christian charity by ghostly visions of Christmases past, present, and future.
We are, of course, in the familiar territory of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as reconsidered in Lawton’s 95-minute, intermissionless bravura solo turn.
Presented by Lantern Theater Company at the Drake’s Proscenium Theatre through Dec. 29, it is a remounting of a 2018 world premiere.
Lawton’s Carol, created in collaboration with sound designer Christopher Colucci and set and lighting designer Thom Weaver, is at once an adaptation and an annotation of the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge.
A smart piece of writing (much of it the original Dickens), it is brilliantly performed and staged, and suitable for families, despite its often sophisticated language. In the small, U-shaped theater, Lawton often plays directly to the elementary-age children in the audience, involving them and holding them rapt.
In a full-throttle, highly physical performance, Lawton assumes a variety of English accents and demeanors and embodies every character, from good-hearted Tiny Tim and his beleaguered father Bob Cratchit to the chained ghost of Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley and Scrooge himself.
He periodically breaks off the narrative to comment on it, or to insert a distinctive twist. Dickens’ description of London’s food shops becomes a paean to Philadelphia’s Italian Market and Reading Terminal Market.
Lawton’s underlining of Scrooge’s nastiness and comparison of the Ghost of Christmas Present to the giants of professional basketball are Brechtian interpolations that aren’t strictly necessary. But they’re clever enough on their own terms, and may help keep younger viewers engaged.
For the most part, the story and characters, as seductive and sentimental as ever, stand on their own. Weaver’s set is just a wooden-plank floor and a lectern, which tips over to become a desk, a chair, a bed, or a table. Colucci’s rich sound design supplies bells, clanking chains, ballroom music, and more.
Weaver’s lighting is especially important in conjuring dread, otherworldly mystery, and dawning light and hope. Kierceton Keller designed Lawton’s picturesque, vaguely seedy outfit of a topcoat, vest, ruffle-collared shirt, and trousers.
But much of the scene-setting takes place in the audience’s imagination, aided by the precision and lushness of Dickens’ language and Lawton’s animated rendering of Dickens’ vision.
The program notes remind us that the novelist used to perform his own solo adaptations of A Christmas Carol to appreciative spectators. Lawton is a worthy heir to this tradition, leaving the audience teary-eyed and prompting one woman to gasp: “Oh, gosh. That was absolutely wonderful.”
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Lantern Theater Company performances through Dec. 29 at the Proscenium Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St.