To see Lantern Theater’s marvelous, even revelatory A Christmas Carol is like visiting a funhouse hall of mirrors: everywhere you look you’ll see another Anthony Lawton, one more dazzling than the next. For Lawton is the adapter here (in collaboration with Christopher Colucci, who also provides the sound design, and Thom Weaver, whose lighting is exceptionally evocative), as well the sole performer. The multiplicity of personae doesn’t stop there. In each guise, he contains multitudes.
In his writer-role, Lawton has simultaneously been faithful to Dickens’s perennially beloved original and slyly upended it. Large sections of the script are faithfully quoted, including pretty much every major episode. But surrounding the narrative is a commentary that both celebrates and plays with A Christmas Carol.
You’ll note it at the very beginning, when Lawton winks at Scrooge’s famous expletive (“Bah. Humbug,” of course), encouraging the audience to mentally substitute more profane and current epithets when they hear it. Because, as Lawton pointedly observes, Scrooge really is a miserable human being—a kind of cannibal, actually.
Importantly, what we are meant to understand here is that the sentiment of A Christmas Carol is equally balanced by its harshness. Also, that while we may be watching it in another country 175 years after it was written, the tale has deep connections to our current world. In one of Lawson’s most inspired riffs, he embellishes the grand recounting of delicious holiday foods, inserting references to a catalog of venerable Philadelphia purveyors: Di Bruno, Isgro’s, Termini Brothers, and more.
As an actor, Lawton likewise lives vividly within A Christmas Carol and observes sardonically from outside it. Costumed in a shabby frock coat and top hat (the costume is by Kierceton Keller), his face painted clownish white, he might almost be a figure from a Currier and Ives’ holiday print—but there is something far deeper there, an unsettling mix of sweet and sinister (think Chaplin’s Little Tramp, remade for today). Amidst the merest suggestion of scenery (a podium serves multiple functions), and with balletic grace, Lawton embodies many of the story’s fabled characters, while always retaining his narrator persona.
The net effect is to take a familiar tale that time and acquaintance have rendered perilously close to kitsch and bring it electrifyingly to life. I’ve never seen the story of the three ghosts feel more spine-tingly scary. I’ve rarely found Dickens’s quirky humor register as so genuinely funny. And maybe most important for A Christmas Carol’s ultimate message—I had thought I was inured to the image of Tiny Tim’s crutch standing alone in the corner, but unexpectedly I teared up when Lawton, with masterly understatement, came to the passage.
This is very much A Christmas Carol for adults, though thoughtful youngsters—especially those with an interest in theater—will surely love it. Just make sure you go to the right place! This show is produced by Lantern Theater but presented at a wonderfully intimate black box space on the Drexel campus, near 34thand Market.
God bless us, every one! But especially Tony Lawton, who has given Philadelphia a gorgeous holiday gift—one that I hope returns year after year.
A Christmas Carol runs through January 6. For more information, visit the Lantern Theater website.