Review: ‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’
New twist, old story at Performance Network
One sure sign the Christmas season is upon us is the appearance of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghostly pals at theaters all around town. Some – like the annual production at Meadow Brook Theatre – are beloved holiday traditions. Others are touring shows that simply pop into town for a quick visit. Either way, the story that’s told is generally close to what Charles Dickens envisioned way back in the mid-1800s.
But what if what we’ve been told is only one side of the story – Scrooge’s?
It was a 10-year-old girl who got actor/playwright Tom Mula thinking along those lines. “Jacob Marley got a raw deal,” she said after seeing him perform the role of Scrooge at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Mula agreed. After all, it was Marley who warned Scrooge about his spirited visitors, yet it was he who remained in chains upon Scrooge’s redemption.
So Mula decided it was time to set the record straight. And so he did, with “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” now conjuring up holiday spirits at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre.
Upon his death, Marley learns he is destined to spend eternity chained to what was most important to him in life: his money boxes and his ledgers. But that’s not all: Also bound to him is a tiny sprite the size of a raisin – a bogle – who serves as Marley’s guide to the afterlife.
It’s a situation with which Marley is none too pleased. However, there is a way to redeem himself, the bogle tells him. So Marley accepts an assignment that, if successful, will free him from his hellish existence: He must redeem his old business partner – wholly and irrevocably – in 24 earth-hours or less!
Seven years have passed since his death, Marley discovers, and his initial attempts at converting Scrooge fall on deaf ears. But that doesn’t stop him from coming up with a sure-fire plan. Will a trip to the past help change an unrepentant Scrooge? Or will it better serve the man who’s trying to save him?
Originally conceived as a children’s book, Mula’s play is told through a type of performance art called story theater. For those not familiar with this particular style, such productions combine two distinct genres, storytelling and theater, wherein the actors take turns both narrating the story and playing its many characters. (If watching Marley deliver a line in the third person seems odd to you – such as “Marley felt a bit dizzy” – you won’t be alone: A woman sitting in the row in front of me last Friday night made it abundantly clear – and loudly, too, on two separate occasions – that she hated the play, but loved the actors.)
Therefore, what’s required of a successful story theater production are two things: a director who understands the concept and a team of actors who can create out of nothing everything the audience needs to envision the story.
Both are well delivered in this fine and entertaining production.
It’s a minimalist concept upon which Director Tony Caselli builds his show. There are few props, costumes or sets beyond the basics. Instead, he relies on the skills of his actors to create each scene. We don’t need to SEE Marley’s chains; we know they exist because the actor’s movements show us so.
It’s to those actors’ credit that Caselli’s show especially shines.
It’s a rare actor who discovers something new or different about a much-delineated character such as Scrooge, but the always incredible John Seibert finds every nuance possible – which he then gleefully and joyously brings to life.
Likewise, rising star Darrell Glasgow has much fun – and is much fun to watch – playing the impishly sly bogle, while utility player Tobin Hissong juggles the other characters quite well.
But it’s Paul Hopper – no stranger to Dickens’ world – who is the heart and soul of this production. The multiple award-winning actor flawlessly breathes energy into Marley, a character often reduced to a spooky footnote to the story. It’s a fully-realized and compassionate portrayal, one that sets the standard for years to come.
“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” A Michigan premiere by Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Staged Thu.-Sun., through Dec. 24. Tickets: $20-$34.50. For information: 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org.
The Bottom Line: Although there is no doubt that Marley is dead to begin with, what’s also crystal clear is this: Don’t miss this spirited holiday treat!
Commentary: Confessions of a Cranky Critic
Don’t be a Scrooge: Support the arts this holiday season
It’s no secret that the arts in Michigan are struggling for survival this holiday season. Box office numbers are generally down, donations are drying up and grants from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs have once again been slashed.
And it’s not just our local professional theaters that are feeling the pinch. So, too, are our state’s major institutions.
How any of them keeps going is, to me, a mystery.
One trait every “cool city” shares is a vibrant arts community. (And a thriving gay community, of course!) But if today’s economic forces don’t change soon, we could face the closure of several leading arts organizations. And once that happens, the artists who staff them will also be forced to leave – something our state can ill-afford.
So what can each of us do to keep our local institutions going? I’m glad you asked!
Simply buying a ticket for you and that special someone in your life would be helpful. So, too, would an end-of-the-year donation – no matter how big or small.
But how about this: As you check your list for who’s been naughty or nice, why not consider purchasing gift certificates to one or more of our local arts groups? Sure, a potted plant brings color into a person’s life, but the arts offer so much more. Better yet: Combine it with dinner somewhere, and the result will be a night on the town that won’t soon be forgotten.
So don’t be a Scrooge this year; instead, be an arts patron!
Log onto www.pridesource.com for additional theater coverage, including reviews of “Sweet Bird of Youth” at the Hilberry and “Last Call” at Planet Ant, plus the latest theater news from around town.