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'Christmas Carol' goes virtual at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson

Actors at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson are performing a virtual production of the classic Charles Dickens' novel because of the coronavirus pandemic.  Credit: Bruce Gilbert

There's no place like home for the holidays this year whether we like it or not. With large family gatherings and traditions such as seeing live performances of "The Nutracker" or "A Christmas Carol" on ice, the 2020 holiday season is one that only a Scrooge could love. No one knows that better than Theatre Three's Jeffrey Sanzel.

"He would resent the economic damage … but as far as not having to deal with the celebratory aspects, Scrooge would not be unhappy," said Sanzel, who has played Ebenezer Scrooge in the Port Jefferson theater's annual "A Christmas Carol" since 1988.

But even with a pandemic going on, Sanzel wasn't about to just roll over and shout "bah, humbug" at the prospect of not doing the show this year. Instead, he adapted Charles Dickens' classic story into a 45-minute virtual version called "A Carol for This Christmas," which premiered Dec. 12 and is available through the beginning of 2021 at Theatre Three's website. And in a gesture that Scrooge would relish about as much as a carolers' chorus of "Joy to the World," the show is free.

"We wanted this to be a gift to the community," Sanzel said. "We want to put something on that, even if it is not our usual 'Christmas Carol,' it will have the spirit and the heart of Dickens' story."

Obviously, Scrooge is a character dear to Sanzel's heart. He reflects on what playing Scrooge has meant to him and audiences in years past and takes a look ahead to next year.

THE SPIRIT OF 'CHRISTMAS CAROL' PAST

Sanzel, who is also Theatre Three's executive director, has logged more than 1,500 performances as Scrooge, starting 32 years ago at the ripe old age of 22.

"I was pretty terrible," he said with a chuckle. "It was a vigorous performance I'm sure, probably very loud."

While his performances since then may have mellowed like a fine mulled wine, the real joy has been in bringing different nuances to the character every year.

"Over the years, as you experience life, you begin to understand what he’s going through, what the people around him are going through and that redemption and change are possible," he said. "Some years I find more things than others, some years I'm better than others. Going from 22 to 54 now has been an incredible opportunity to work the arc of the character."

THE SPIRIT OF 'CHRISTMAS CAROL' PRESENT

When the pandemic put Theatre Three on lockdown in March, Sanzel's first thought was "How are we going to do 'A Christmas Carol'?"

Several scenarios went through his head, including a live six-person show and an outdoor production. When those didn't work out, he created "A Carol for This Christmas," a socially-distanced version of the play featuring a cast of six — each performing to their own camera— that was shot in the theater.

"Everyone is playing three or four roles," he said. That includes Sanzel, who is portraying Scrooge as a boy, a young adult and an old man. Missing is Tiny Tim, who is only heard offstage.

"It’s very stylized," he adds. "The whole thing is done very suggestively. And it takes place in a closed theater. The idea is you're looking at theater that’s in transition between strike and load-in."

THE SPIRIT OF 'CHRISTMAS CAROL' YET TO COME

"It’s going to be like Scrooge waking up on Christmas morning and given this new lease on life," is the feeling of anticipation Sanzel has for next year when Theatre Three can hopefully present its traditional version of "A Christmas Carol." He also expects that both the cast and audiences will find new joys in the show.

"There's going to be the joy of connecting. When you think about Scrooge metaphorically, he's in isolation. 'Secret, self-contained and solitary as an oyster is how Dickens describes him, and it’s kind of how we’ve had to live our lives lately," he said. "I think next year that moment of Scrooge connecting with everyone on Christmas morning will be unlike any we’ve had in the 30-plus years of 'A Christmas Carol' at Theatre Three."

Sanzel adds that the pandemic challenged him to be more creative with this year's show. At the same time, he expects it will make audiences appreciate the live version even more next year.

"This experience is going to infuse the production in so many ways," he said, adding "ways that I haven‘t even had a chance to think about yet.'

"A Christmas Carol"

WHEN|WHERE Video production available on demand at theatrethree.com.

COST Free

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