KPBS AIRDATE: December 06, 2002
Marley, as we all know, was as dead as a doornail. Dickens first established that fact in 1843. and now, here comes Chicago actor/playwright Tom Mula, reviving old Marley so he can tell his side of the story. In “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” which premiered in 1998, the old boy is, as Dickens put it, “dead to begin with.” But just how he acquired all those chains, and how he made it through the rings of hell and back again, is the focus of this serio-comical piece. You may recall that Marley was Scrooge’s equally tight-fisted partner, who died on Christmas Eve 7 years before we meet the famous story starts. He comes back, dragging his chains, to scare the Dickens out of Ebenezer and get him to turn his life around. In this version, Marley has to turn his death around, to learn his own lessons, so that all his ‘debts’ are forgiven and he can lose those chains he forged in life. On his peregrinations through the underworld, Marley is escorted by a little homunculus, a Victorian cross between Jiminy Cricket and Mini-Me who snuggles into his ear and chides him mercilessly, calling him “pimple” and “pustule” and generally laughing at his obstinacy.
So we view the timeless, spirit-filled Christmas night through the eyes of the ghost and his own specters. It’s a clever conceit, but though Mula tries to emulate Dickens’ style and he does manage some witty and poetic turns of phrase, his piece remains a ghostly reflection of the original, and doesn’t add all that much in the message department.What we do get, along with Old Marley, is that redemption and joy can be found in helping other people (as Marley does for Scrooge). It’s inspirational, but not quite as moving as the real “Christmas Carol,” and not half as inspiring as watching actor Ron Choularton go through his paces for two hours.
He’s always been a delightful, engaging performer, and he keeps the audience mesmerized, even when the script bogs down with an over-long Christmas Present and excessive revisits of the Dickens scenes we know so well. We may be most fascinated by the sheer skill and magnitude of the task, which isn’t quite what theater is supposed to be about. Still, there’s no denying that Choularton is spectacular — as stingy Scrooge, skeptical Marley, the crotchety keeper of the Books in that great counting-house down below, and especially spry as the amusing bug-in-the-ear, Bogle. One might ask why he doesn’t just do a one-man “Christmas Carol,” like Patrick Stewart. But this is meant to be North Coast Rep’s fresh holiday alternative and it is a diverting one, sharply directed by James Saba on a crafty, rotating set draped in chains. The English-born Choularton is a San Diego treasure, and we should cherish the gift he’s giving us this holiday season.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
>©2002 Patté Productions Inc.