Ghost World 

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol is catchy but out of tune.

Did you know that every time a ghost does his job, a hobgoblin turns into an angel? Did you know Death's a funny puppet with a stick up his butt? Did you know that no matter how diligently you train, how well you plan, or how fast you run, drive, or fly this holiday season, you'll never escape the heartwarming blessings of a pint-sized cripple from Victorian England? If you haven't seen Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, Circuit Playhouse's Dante-meets-Disney take on the original nightmare before Christmas, there's a whole world of freaky shit you don't know.

We're told that old Ebenezer Scrooge was "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard as flint ... and solitary as an oyster." Jacob Marley, Scrooge's longtime but unimpeachably dead partner, was no worse than his old mate and was perhaps much better, having shown the good sense to die sooner, thus ridding the world of another secular swine who won't say "Merry Christmas" to Bill O'Reilly. So why is it that a do-gooding ghost like Marley has to shake his spook chains for eternity while his hum-bugging chum is given a full reprieve?

That's the question playwright Tom Mula asked before penning Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, which -- in spite of its interesting premise -- turns out to be a point-by-point, behind-the-scenes rehash of Dickens' original with lighthearted nods to other holiday classics such as The Wizard of Oz. "The Bogle," a Jiminy Cricket-like demon, is tossed in to guide poor dead Marley on his not-so-merry way.

Although Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol was always intended for the stage, it was penned in prose and developed as a novel, skip-the-novel approach to narrative theater. Because narrative theater requires that actors recite descriptive passages where the play's actions are articulated in detail, it's important for directors to avoid overly parochial interpretations. Hearing that a character is doing something while watching them do exactly that becomes painfully redundant over time and that's the first serious problem with director Michael Gravois' production. It is not, however, the worst.

Circuit Playhouse outdoes itself every Christmas by presenting a slate of family classics in rep with a few productions designed to appeal more to adults who are burned out on the traditional Christmas fare. Rep is hard on everybody, but it's especially challenging to designers who must discover simple, versatile set designs that may be used for more than one play or easily torn down and reassembled. Ashley Bellet's design for Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (which shares the stage with the barnyard classic Charlotte's Web) looks more ramshackle than rustic and conjures no images of either Victorian London or hell. Although it is functional, the set changes are awkward affairs that throw the actors off their game. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a giant, badly made puppet with such a limited range of motion it ends up looking more like some South Park-ish parody of a theatrical device than anything that can be taken seriously.

The play is salvaged, to a large degree, by an able cast that can handle the play's language and have discovered fresh, new reasons for us to care about some overly familiar characters. Though absurdly costumed with what appear to be possum pelts hanging from his wrists where chains should be, Jonathon Lamer's Marley makes a quick, logical journey from crusty old curmudgeon to desperately caring devil. He imbues even the play's cheapest pop-culture references with enough humanity to make them tolerable. Brian Mott may be the cruelest and cattiest Scrooge to ever walk the boards, and relative newcomer Megan Keach plays the Bogle -- a conscience-like spirit that rides in Marley's ear -- like a sassy, somewhat sexy leprechaun who eventually turns into the star of Bethlehem, or something like that.

It's good to occasionally shine a bit of new light through dirty old windows, and when it hits its stride, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol is a pleasant holiday diversion, but it's hardly an improvement on the original.

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