Southern Californians may not be able to depend on snow before Christmas, but one thing is certain about our theater scene.  There will be Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carols galore every year from November through December.

Some theaters opt for a traditional approach, others set the tale to music, others play it for comedy while still others target a niche audience (e.g. a pair of gay Christmas Carols currently on the boards).

Down Orange County way, The Chance Theater’s take on Dickens’ classic tale may be the most original of all (and the spookiest). In Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, by Tom Mula, Ebenezer Scrooge’s late but not particularly lamented partner in stinginess finally gets the chance to redeem himself much as Scrooge has been doing for the past 165 years.

The tale opens as does Dickens’ original A Christmas Carol, with Dickens’ own words—“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”—and soon we find ourselves with old Jacob himself (Bryan Barton). But where are we?  What is this dark, dank room filled with shelves and shelves of books? Are we in hell? 

The answer comes quickly enough from the Record Keeper (Jeff Hellebrand) and a pair of storytellers (Alex Bueno and Bryan Seastrom).  This is the “counting house,” and Marley has come up short in his accounts.  His credit is “almost nonexistent.”  Since he has not fulfilled his end of the contract, he is presented with the chains he “forged in life.”

Out of Marley’s ear pops Bogle (pronounced BO-gull, and portrayed by Marisa Persson), a cute, spunky, barefoot Cockney-accented sprite, who will be his guide. As Marley and Bogle fly over London, Jacob is astounded to see his fellow townspeople surrounded by angels, and then by grim reapers…which they are unaware of until it’s too late. When Bogle tells Marley of his assignment—to give Ebenezer Scrooge a chance to take a new path in life before it is too late—Marley is aghast. “I have to redeem old Scrooge?” he exclaims in disbelief.  After all, Scrooge is the only man worse than Marley.  How can Marley possibly effect in Scrooge a complete change of heart?  In twenty-four years, he might be able to do something, but in twenty-four hours? Impossible!

Soon we’re in more traditional A Christmas Carol territory with Scrooge (Glenn Koppel) being his usual mean self to his overly cheerful nephew Fred (Seastrom) and browbeaten clerk Bob Cratchit (Hellebrand), to whom he gives Christmas Day off but only on condition that he take work home with him.

It’s Bogle who plants the idea of “spirits” in Marley’s head, inspiring him to come up with the plan to have three ghosts visit Scrooge on three successive nights.  

Though we spend time with Scrooge, Mula’s tale plants the focus clearly on Marley.  We relive his painful childhood, his mother’s untimely death, the bullying he underwent by an older apprentice until he met the new boy Scrooge, later to become his business partner.  It Mula’s version, it is Marley himself who is transformed into each of the three ghosts.

Though the mood of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol is mostly quite dark and otherworldly, there are occasional comic moments as when Marley dons a sheet with eyeholes thinking this might be the best way to scare Scrooge.  Later, Marley holds an empty frame up to his face and places a door knocker in his mouth to simulate his first ghostly meeting with Scrooge.  When Scrooge tells Marley to “go straight to hell, or back to it,” Bogle deadpans, “Well, that went well, didn’t it,” when it clearly didn’t go well at all. 

Under Tony Vezner’s imaginative direction, Barton gives an impressive performance as Marley, intense, committed, and ultimately touching.  Koppel’s Scrooge is one tough cookie, and perhaps even an even meaner man than we are accustomed to. Persson is perkiness/spunkiness personified. Hellebrand, Bueno, Seastrom, and little Miss Rylee Montgomery (Tiny Tim) provide fine support to the three principals.

The entire production could not be more visually imaginative.  Set designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s weirdly angled bookshelves look like something out of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. Ladders are moved about the set, up which cast members climb in order to appear to be swimming like sea creatures (David J. Dalton’s projection design making them seem surrounded by sea water) or flying over London like Superman. Jeff Brewer’s moody lighting adds to the show’s spookiness and Sarah Le Feber’s excellent costumes evoke a London of another time. Dave Mickey’s sound design features whirling winds and eerie background music, and has Bueno and Seastrom doing Foley duty as they bang and rattle chains at appropriate moments. Whenever ghosts speak to Scrooge, their voices take on a spooky reverb.  

Other A Christmas Carols have accustomed us to seeing Scrooge’s transformation, so it is a surprising (and refreshing), change to see the spotlight shining on someone else’s redemption.  We are told that “Scrooge was changed by what he saw, but Marley was changed by what he was.”  Audiences cannot help but be moved by Jacob Marley’s journey.

Chance Theater, 5555 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. 

–Steven Stanley
November 23, 2008
Photos: Doug Catiller

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