Backstage: Paul Morella's solo 'Christmas Carol' at Olney Theatre Center

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 11:17 PM

Actor Paul Morella intends his solo take on Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas" as a kind of anti-Ford's Theatre version. No disrespect meant toward Ford's lavishly designed and populously cast production, he's quick to add.

Morella wants his hybrid staging - part storytelling, part full-out theater - to "strip away all the artifice, all the embroidery and embellishment and just go to the essence of the story and let Dickens himself do the talking." He'll perform the piece, which he debuted last year at the Arts Barn in Gaithersburg, at Olney Theatre Center's intimate Theatre Lab space Dec. 16 to Jan. 1. He recommends it for age 10 and older.

Morella will wear Victorian garb and perform on a set depicting a worn Victorian parlor. He aims to tell Dickens's 1843 classic using more of the text than the author did on his speaking tours. Morella says he'll begin as a friendly narrator (greeting audience members as they arrive), then, as the story unfolds, he'll morph into the other characters. A subtle, insinuating sound design "that would seep into your subconscious" will underscore the telling.

Then there are Dickens's words: "Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint." The words have such "bite," says the actor, that "by the time you finish saying it, it is Scrooge . . . all of a sudden, these characters emerge. You don't have to conjure them. There they are."

Morella researched Dickens's novel and the period. He read accounts of how the author performed it on tour (Mark Twain described Dickens's delivery as pretty over-the-top, he found) and located a little-known carol for Tiny Tim to sing at the Cratchits' Christmas dinner.

The bleakness of the first three quarters of the story is not something to shy away from, Morella says. He says this makes "the moments of lightness far more radiant when the transformation finally occurs. . . . Scrooge is a very real person. He's not just a sort of caricature, curmudgeonly old man. He's a very lonely, lost soul."

'Swingtime!' at In Series

The In Series has specialized in hybrid entertainment for a quarter of a century - cross-pollinated confections that dip variously into opera, musical theater, poetry, dance, cabaret and Latin culture. They offer artists from diverse disciplines, particularly local opera performers, a chance to use their talents in something new.

The company (www.inseries.org), which performs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, is about to remount its June show, "Swingtime!" for a seven-performance reprise Friday through Dec. 12.

The show's writer/director Tom Mallan, says he wanted to explore the era's race issues. He considered the 1936 Fred Astaire film "Swing Time," in which Astaire did a tribute to the great tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Titled "Bojangles of Harlem," the number featured Astaire performing in blackface against a backdrop with shadow versions of himself dancing behind him. "You roll your eyes in 2010," Mallan says, but in Astaire's mind it was intended as "an enormously affectionate tribute."

Mallan says he's trying to imagine "what would happen if we could hear what black people were thinking when they saw Astaire in blackface." He wants his play to provide "a backstage voice to those African American members of the industry."

He's created a fictional African American performer named Joe (played by W. Ellington Felton, a jazz musician/actor/hip-hop artist). In Mallan's concept, Joe was the shadow dancer behind that screen in Astaire's "Swing Time." And he has watched as a white childhood friend (a Sinatra-esque figure played by Vincent Borrelli) has made it big while Joe has had a kind of shadow career. Joe has "a huge chip on his shoulder about the nature of the entertainment industry," Mallan says, and has opted out, working as a custodian at a radio studio.

Prior to a Nov. 19 rehearsal of the show in an upstairs studio at Source, on 14th Street NW, In Series Artistic Director Carla Hubner observes that Mallan is "touching a lot of bases in this script." The cast, under Mallan's oversight, dove into renditions of "Sentimental Journey," "Cow Cow Boogie," "Strange Fruit" and more.

Mallan says he's fascinated, too, by the way diverse musical traditions merged in America then - "how so many jazz songs sung by white performers are black music, written by Jewish composers. . . . It's a piece about the melting pot and everyone trying to navigate it without falling into any traps."

Horwitz is a freelance writer.


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