You might think that a theatre piece called Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol would be some kind of a send-up of the Dickens classic. Or, if you’re in a humbug frame of mind, you might conclude that such a title too much implies the regularly unwrapped holiday package and you’d prefer to remain within your rooms, warming feet by the fire, sipping yourself into oblivion with thoroughly-laced hot toddies.
Indeed, my friend, you’re likely to think this play is not for you. But allow the Ghost of Christmas Present to put a tender arm on you and lead you up the Bluebarn Theatre aisle to an unanticipated marvel. Playwright Tom Mula has worked a miracle with fragments of the overdone potato which so many people digest this time of year. He’s made theatre magic. Well, actually the magic equally comes from the Omaha cast and director Kevin Lawler whose creativity goes beyond words and into wonderful physical movement.
Mula’s concept somewhat resembles that of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in that it spins off of famed material with occasional references to the source while not aiming to be intensely comical. But, while Stoppard, it is generally believed, was trying to make cogent statements about existence, in a Samuel Beckett sort of way, Mula seems more focused on telling an imaginative tale for its own sake. Moreover, he marvelously suggests Dickens’ language without pushing that too far, with rich and colorful writing. Stoppard stuck to contemporary English rather than Shakespeare’s.
Oh, and, yes, Marley is likewise dead.
But you know that from the original source. This venture into legend does not attempt a prequel; it stays with hapless Jacob during various stages of his post-living. So, again, Dickens is spun-off; the supernatural abounds in his story. Here Marley hopes to shed his eternal chains and guided, abetted and advised by Bogle, seeks his own redemption. (Bogle is a Mula invention. From Wikipedia we learn that bogle is a British term for a ghost or folkloric being from which the term “bogey(man)” is also derived.) Plus, in the course of Marley’s peregrinations through time and space he occasionally hovers over or into Scrooge’s not- yet-reformed life.
The Bluebarn stage is nearly bare, with only a few hints of scenery. Four men enact the entire conception. You’ve already encountered the names of three roles. The fourth person doubles, triples and quadruples as humans whose names are Dickens-given plus a denizen or two of the spirit world.
Within this modest space, peopled only by this small ensemble, Marley’s new adventures are told with marvelous energy and intelligence by Nils Haaland as the ghost in the title, with substance and depth, always convincingly struggling with his guilty burden, eager, bewildered and amazed.Meanwhile Kevin Barratt often portrays Scrooge as a rather restrained business man, more puzzled than nasty. It works, providing a fine contrast to Haaland’s intensity. Bill Grennan’s Bogle becomes an enduring delight, full of vivid charm and personality. And Scott Working as everybody else personifies each other character justice seemingly effortlessly, never overdoing. (Full disclosure: Bill writes for The Reader. And, as of this writing, we have not yet met in person.)
This quartet does phenomenal things bodily, able to suggest floating, flying ,swooping from great heights, plummeting to great depths, sometime creating moments of jovial beauty. Of course, they don’t actually create illusions. They and director Lawler have come forth with marvelously charming theatrical effects, enchanced by Bill Van Deest’s imaginative lighting. This is, after all, not an attempt with scenery, costumes, accurate British accents and realistic props to re-create the bustling streets and byways of merry and damp old England. Lawler uses every nearly empty corner, shadow, wing of the stage with remarkable imagination.
Larry Shanker has written good accompanying music which, evidently, was created for the Chicago premiere at The Goodman Theater, on-line research reveals. From there, too, you might like to know about the man who wrote this script. Tom Mula has been an award-winning playwright, actor, and director for more than 25 years. In 1995, he published his novel Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol; the play version premiered at the Goodman three years later, receiving the Cunningham Prize from Goodman School of Drama at Depaul University. And Mula has performed the material as a one-person show. He is also an Artist-in-Residence at Columbia College in Chicago. More at: http://www.tommula.com/Bio.html
Clearly this play has been seen and admired for many years and in many places. It deserves its fame. It deserves its acclaim.
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol continues through December 22 at Bluebarn Theatre, 614 S. 11 Street, Omaha. Thurs-Sat 7:30 p.m. Sun. 6 p.m. & Dec. 15 2 p.m. $20-$25. More info at http://www.bluebarn.orgor 402. 345 1576