Lantern Theater has a Christmas gift, in the form of a finely considered reworking of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The storyteller is the theater artist Anthony Lawton, who joins forces with lighting and scenic designer Thom Weaver and sound designer Christopher Colucci — three powerhouses in local professional theater with individual track records over the years.
Their intimate, smooth production of Dickens’ novella, adapted by Lawton, uses a good deal of the original, venturing out of the story at times for some commentary from Lawton. He cites the retro quality of the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” and asks the members of the audience to replace it in their minds with something more current and meaningful. After Lawton tells of Scrooge dismissing a man who seeks charity for workhouses, he explains what a London workhouse was and why it was a place of despair. At one point, Lawton quotes C.S. Lewis on the subject of fear. (He has also adapted Lewis’ work for the stage.)
It all blends seamlessly with the story, which Lawton amends slightly and smartly in this one-man production. His Ghost of Christmas Present, for instance, takes Scrooge magically onto the London streets early Christmas morning, where they observe the happy rush before the day begins in earnest — people scurrying in the shops and making last-minute food purchases in the markets for Christmas dinner. And in a second we’re out of the crowded streets of London and into the Reading Terminal Market and the stalls along Ninth Street. In Lawton’s excited telling, it makes perfect sense.
He accomplishes this with little more than a lectern as a prop. He pushes it to one part of the bare wooden stage and, overturned, it’s the bed Scrooge sleeps in when he’s visited by his late partner Marley, who comes to introduce Scrooge to the nightmare that will be his transformation. The lighting and sound designs by Weaver and Colucci, respectively, become key as the 90-minute show moves forward with images of ghosts and bells and crowds mentioned in its narrative.
Lawton’s role goes all the way back to Dickens himself, who liked to give public readings of “A Christmas Carol” and, as the Lantern’s Meghan Winch writes in the program notes, even whittled the novella down to a reading he could give in 90 minutes. More recently, Dickens’ great-great-grandson, the British actor Gerald Dickens, has given readings of “A Christmas Carol” in historic places in the United States, including the Philadelphia region.
The Lantern version has several rich moments — two of my favorites are the appearance of Marley in Scrooge’s bed chamber, which Lawton offers up in stirring fashion, and that little Christmas morning tour, during which you can almost smell the roasts in the ovens all over London (and Philadelphia).
Costume designer Kierceton Keller dresses Lawton in a disheveled red morning coat and tattered tan pants, with a fluffy cravat falling down his shirt. His face is white-washed in grease paint and his nose is a clownish red — a makeup effect that seems out of place until the story begins to pump and in the stark lighting, Lawton looks much like we imagine a ghost. It’s a tremendously effective image in a new take on a story that’s inextricable with the holiday and the season.
“A Christmas Carol,” in a version commissioned and produced by Lantern Theater, runs through Jan. 6 in the Black Box Theater at Drexel University’s URBN Center Annex, 3401 Filbert St. 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.