A one-man version of “The Christmas Carol”? That could be kind of iffy in the wrong hands.
But rest assured when veteran theater actor and director Chris Mangels is doing the Scrooging. I’m betting that Mangels, who brings his show Tuesday night to the 2nd Space Theatre for one performance only, will make it one of the holiday theater season’s high points.
“A Christmas Carol” is a benefit performance for “Bring Samantha Home,” an ongoing cause supported by local company The Motley Fools. Members are raising money to help the Martin family adopt Samantha, a Ukrainian orphan, and get her safely to the United States before she ages out of that country’s adoption system in February.
The show is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. Tickets are $12.
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I caught up with Mangels via email to learn a little more about the production.
Q: Give us the backstory on the show.
A: I have actually done a fully-mounted version of my one-man-show twice: The first time in 2007 and then again in 2010, both times for the Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Company in Visalia. This Tuesday’s performance will be a fairly ambitious concert reading. I will be in costume and (minor) make-up but I’ll be performing on the stage at the 2nd Space Theatre, where they are currently producing the fantastic “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play.” Since I will not have my set and the show comes hot on the heels of COS’s “White Christmas” (which just closed today) I will have my script in front of me on a stand, but there will still be much more of a “performance” than people usually expect from a reading, including some costume changes and some sound effects. The show is in my blood and it wants to come out and play!
Q: This is an original adaptation, correct? How long did it take you to write it? What sort of approach did you take in terms of storytelling?
A: A little bit of history is probably required to answer this question: In 2003, I directed a huge-scale version of “A Christmas Carol” (30+ actors, big special effects) for The Enchanted Playhouse, and it was very successful. In 2007, they announced the production again as their holiday show but then lost their director. They came to me in September and asked if I’d be willing to direct it again, but I had just been hired as a full-time professor at COS, I was directing my first show there (which was scheduled to close only two weeks before “Christmas Carol” would open), AND I was getting married in late October.
I joked with my dear friend and collaborator, Karen Kirkpatrick (who was, at the time on the EPTC Board), that the only way I could pull it off in so short an amount of time would be if I didn’t have to work with anyone but myself. She laughed, I laughed, and then (knowing that Patrick Stewart had a popular run with his own one-man adaptation in the late 90’s) I said, “What if I DID do it as a one-man show?” Over several beers and some creative scheduling, we agreed that Karen would be my co-director and thus tell me if my ideas were working, we’d bring in a trusted friend (Sean McMichael) as the tech director, and I would try to tackle the adaptation, design the show, and then perform it in the span of three weeks.
As soon as my COS production finished its first weekend, I went into “A Christmas Carol” mode: I downloaded a PDF copy of Dickens’ novel, transferred it into a Microsoft Word document, and then began to cut, tweak, and reimagine it as a one-man-performance. I concentrated on seeing the world through Dickens’ omniscient perspective but living the story through Scrooge’s transformation. I actually found that the story very much benefitted from such an intimate approach because of two things:
#1. It is – at its heart – quite an unsettling ghost story and therefore really evokes a ‘fireside storyteller’ ambiance when performed by one person.
#2. Though Scrooge is visited by three ghosts and encounters many different characters, his journey is a very solitary one. When you clear away the grand sets and special effects that audiences have come to expect and approach it from a sort of ‘Poor Theatre’ standpoint (focusing on the actor instead of the spectacle), I think the story resonates even more as a moralistic tale of redemption.
I crafted the first draft of the script in a single (long) night, Karen and I went to work on staging it the next evening, and 20 days later we opened the show. To add to my stress, the first time I performed the show without having Karen feed me lines was on opening night in front of a very responsive 200 person audience. It was the most daunting, terrifying, and exhilarating artistic experiment I had ever done, and I cherish it to this day.
Q: How many characters do you play?
A: I play 26 different characters as well as sing a few snippets of songs.
Q: Out of all those characters, is there one you identify with most?
A: The Storyteller (Dickens’ narrating voice) has a real attitude and opinion that is quite fun to play with, and – of course – Scrooge is a wonderful challenge for any actor, but I think it is Scrooge’s one-time-fiancée, Belle, who always evokes the greatest emotion in me. I am so moved by the story of her and young Ebenezer that I usually struggle to keep from crying real tears when I perform that scene. It is a great testament to Dickens’ writing that it continues to resonate with me so viscerally after so many years of exploring the work.
Q: What are your thoughts on "A Christmas Carol" as a piece of literature? It's performed so much these days it's sort of like "The Nutcracker" in that some people have a sort of eye-rolling attitude toward it.
A: This is a great question! I have suggested to several local companies that they produce this version as a VERY affordable holiday show and most have been understandably hesitant because “A Christmas Carol” – like the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Neil Simon – have sort of been ‘done-to-death- by educational institutions and amateur companies. But like “Oklahoma” and “The Odd Couple,” I think that “A Christmas Carol” is an incredibly brilliant piece of theatre (and literature) with tremendously vivid characters and a remarkably universal story with which the audience can connect. I’ll probably never convince a person to attend if they’re already in ‘eye-roll- mode’, but I hope that the possibility to help the wonderful Martin family with such a great cause will bring them. Then it becomes my responsibility to show them that “A Christmas Carol” still has something new to say … or at least it still has a new way to say it.
Q: Anything to add?
A: I’d like to think that Charles Dickens would support the “Bring Samantha Home” project and applaud us for using his work to reach out to folks and encourage them to give selflessly for the good of a child. I believe so vehemently in Haley White and the mission of the Motley Fools that I just wanted to find a way to give something of myself. This show is one of my most prized creative possessions, and I am honored that they are investing their time and energy to produce it. I also want to give a special thank you to my dear friend and mentor, Dan Pessano, and Good Company Players for sponsoring our event by letting us use the 2nd Space Theatre. I hope that by the end of Tuesday night’s performance, everyone is inspired to help bring Samantha that much closer to her home in Fresno.