At Castle Street’s Cape Fear Playhouse, Big Dawg Productions has quietly opened a show that “flips the script” of what many people think of as the quintessential Christmas story. Its first line is a familiar one: “Jacob Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” So begins “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” by Tom Mula.
Told on a bare stage and utilizing “story theatre” techniques of performers describing characters and setting as they morph before audiences’ eyes, four performers bring to life an alternate version of “A Christmas Carol.” The show will evoke tears, laughter, joy, and heartbreak. Randy Davis creates Jacob Marley, who finds himself talking to The Record Keeper (Fracaswell Hyman) in a sequence reminiscent of the Netherworld Caseworker scene in 1988’s “Beetlejuice.” Hyman describes and becomes a very ancient man, with stacks of ledgers, papers and contracts. Marley finds himself weighted down by chains, locks, cash boxes—each link forged by him during his life. The Bogle (a Scottish word for a spirit), played by Vanessa Welch, guides Marley through his new residence in Hell. As it turns out, it is not quite what Dante described; it may be worse. Here, people have to face themselves. Is there no way out? Are there no other options? Well … one could put in for a transfer. (Apparently Hell is also bureaucracy—big surprise.) In order to be released from Hell, Marley must initiate a complete change of heart in his former partner Ebenezer Scrooge (Steve Vernon). And he has only 24 hours in earth time.
Mula fleshes out the backstory of Marley, who up till now we have known in relation to Scrooge. But who was Marley before they met? Here we see his childhood, which mirrors Scrooge’s in ways too familiar and painful for either to recount. Davis must pop in and out of scenes, and play his earlier self and protest against it with The Bogle. Davis makes the transitions easily and believably. However, his biggest challenge to make Marley’s full growth and transformation believable. To start off he is impatient, self-centered, selfish, and grasping, and takes the audience on a journey with a climax that mirrors Sydney Carton’s in “A Tale of Two Cities.” To his credit as a performer, watching he and Vernon together, sent echoes through my head: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Though Davis never says those words, everything about his performance evokes them.
Vernon’s Scrooge is genuinely creepy and scary—not like horror-monster scary, but worse. He plays the kind that can make folks slink away to avoid being caught in his tractor beam of awfulness. His take is cringe-worthy. Hyman gives us The Record Keeper and an obsequious Bob Cratchit, a kind-hearted and generous Fezziwig, and, perhaps most heartbreaking to watch, a pained and drunken Papa Marley.
Welch’s Bogle has a specific journey: trying to figure out how to help Marley problem-solve situations that arise, but also make sure the “inspiration and perspiration” are all his own. Her part is written to be a more acerbic and less whiny version of Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She has to believe in Marley, even when he doesn’t. At times frustrated, some dismayed and yet others surprised and hopeful, her interplay with Davis is natural and encouraging. Wouldn’t we all be so lucky to have someone like this guide us through the darkest times in our lives?
Though the set is created largely by audience imagination, there are two visual elements which stand out: Debbie Scheu’s costumes and Jeff Loy’s lighting design. Against the basic canvass of the black stage, Scheu’s costumes pop with lavish Victorian finery which typify the era. The brocade, ruffles and lace create a striking statement about image and wealth—external trappings that can be donned or doffed but are just trappings. Early in the show shadowy, filmy blueish lights set the scene, but Loy has some simple yet powerful special effects that manage to make the intimate space of Cape Fear Playhouse feel wondrous and infinite.
I, for one, feel like I have sat through many incredibly bad, and a few very good, interpretations of “A Christmas Carol” throughout the years. Mula’s script with this cast is lovely—absolutely lovely. The show really speaks to the holiday spirit—but, actually, barely mentions Christmas. It could be any 24-hour period of time on Earth that Marley must affect a sincere and willing change in Scrooge’s life. Bringing in another theme of Dickens’ work: to keep Christmas all through the year. It isn’t one day out of 365 set aside for generosity—rather, it’s a way of life. The cast sell this message without beating it to death; they take the journey and hold out their hands for audiences to come with them. It is a simply beautiful night of theatre and an excellent choice for a holiday show.