Published in Gay and Lesbian Times December 07, 2002
Deadheads and midgets and chains, oh my! Sounds like Saturday night in Hillcrest. But no, it’s Jacob Marley… he’s baaaaack, dragging all his baggage with him (isn’t everyone??)
Dickens created the firm of Scrooge and Marley in 1843. Now, here comes Chicago actor/playwright Tom Mula, to revive and revisit the penny-pinching pair so Marley 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.
Marley, as you may recall, was Scrooge’s tight-fisted partner, who died on Christmas Eve seven years before 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 own death around, to learn his own lessons, so that all his ‘debts’ are forgiven and he can get out of a horrible purgatory and lose those ‘chains he forged in life.’ He can save himself from the torments of hell if he can bring about the reform of the one person on earth who was a worse curmudgeon than he. That would, of course, be Ebenezer Scrooge. 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.
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 pale copy, a ghostly reflection of the original; and it doesn’t add all that much in the message department, either. What we do learn, along with Old Marley, is that both redemption and joy can be found in helping other people. It’s inspirational, but not as subtle or touching as the real “Christmas Carol,” and not half as inspiring as watching actor Ron Choularton cavort through the piece for nigh-on two hours.
Choularton has always been a delightfully engaging performer, and he keeps the audience mesmerized, even when the script bogs down with 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, Choularton is spectacular — as stingy Scrooge, skeptical Marley, the crotchety keeper of the Books in that great counting-house down below, and he’s especially spry as that amusing little spirit, the bug-in-the-ear, Bogle. One might ask why this talented actor doesn’t just do a one-man tour de force “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, fresh from his directorial triumph with “Irma Vep” at Diversionary. He is the Director to Watch — though he’s a mighty fine actor, too, as he proved last summer in North Coast Rep’s “Travesties” and “Importance of Being Earnest.” Resident designer Marty Burnett has created a creaky, crafty, rotating set, aptly draped in chains. The English-born Choularton is a San Diego treasure, who’s giving us a gift this holiday season.
Despite a shaky fall (administratively speaking), North Coast Rep is in high spirits; they’ve got a new artistic director (David Ellenstein), and they’re singing their own ‘Christmas Carol.’
“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” runs through December 29 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach; 858-481-1055.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.