Marley is the Christmas star at Williamston
There are numerous adaptations, parodies and variations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for stage and screen, and even if those iterations appear but once a year, people may grow weary of them. However, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, by Tom Mula, is a truly imaginative adaptation that breathes life into a part of the story dormant in Dickens’ classic tale: what happened to Jacob Marley?
Marley is the dark, complex character at the center of this play, and the stakes are nothing less than the redemption of his very soul, which is more labyrinthine and spiritually sophisticated than Scrooge’s, though the two are inextricably linked here. Marley isn’t just the catalyzing warning; he orchestrates Scrooge’s spiritual transformation while undergoing his own. “Scrooge was changed by what he saw. Marley was changed by what he was,” one narrator proclaims.
At times funny and spooky, it’s still a tale of redemption that navigates through time and between the worlds of the living and the dead, though its focus is slightly shifted and it nearly escapes sentimentality altogether while retaining its effectively moving Christmas spirit.
First a novel, then a one-man show performed by Mula himself, the play has evolved into a performance with four actors. It works especially well in the intimate space at Williamston Theatre under Julia Glander’s fine direction as a minimalist production in which every element shines.
There are no set or costume changes to speak of, hardly any set pieces or props, and each actor both plays and narrates his or her role(s). Matthew Imhoff’s scenic design consists of a subtle skateboard ramp in front of a false proscenium built of cubbies decorated with a wreath and holly, filled with flickering candles and books against an exposed brick cyclorama. It’s cozy, beautiful, and transcends time and place, particularly with Shannon Schweitzer’s lights that interplay with the set. Her design both highlights and delineates the wild ranges of time, place, mood, and tone—at times covering up flaws in the script that otherwise would make the narrative somewhat murky.
To keep up, one must be familiar with A Christmas Carol, but what theatergoer isn’t? With so little of the action made visual, one must imagine much of what the actors are seeing and experiencing, but that’s part of the pleasure of this production—the way it inspires suspension of disbelief.
Particularly fantastic effects include the doorknocker scene when Marley first appears to Scrooge; sound effects (designed by John Lepard) largely created by the actors themselves with percussive instruments, coins, and chains; actors perched on a decorated step ladder on wheels to create the illusion of flying through space and time; and faintly blue Christmas lights carefully poking through the brick to create a night sky.
And then, of course, there’s the acting, which is top notch. Glander cast women in two of the roles, all of which are male characters, and it works brilliantly. Ruth Crawford, an exceptionally beautiful woman, plays a lively, animated Scrooge with emotional depth. Mark Colson is a captivating and sympathetic Marley, and he physically expresses multiple layers of suffering. Patrick Loos gets most of the laughs as Record Keeper and a few other characters, and Rosie Sullivan is a stunning presence as the Bogle, the tiny man made of light that emerges from Marley’s ear—part Puck, part Jiminy Cricket, and part Clarence, the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life. She’s impish, full of life, and gives a truly delightful performance. She and Colson have excellent chemistry.
At one point, when Marley is forced to face his own “wretched Dickensian childhood,” he asks the Bogle “Can’t we go back to hell? It was better than this,” and the audience believes this. Similarly, at the end of the performance when the actors offer a blessing to the darkness as well as to each of us, it resonates—perhaps even more than Tiny Tim’s words in A Christmas Carol. This commitment to the darkness implicit in Dickens though often glossed over in the name of Christmas, is absolutely necessary for a tale of redemption, just as it is for the true spirit of the season. There can be no light without the dark, no good without evil, no life without death.
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol at Williamston Theatre preserves that necessary balance, offering far more than the usual Christmas Carol fare.