Performed by just four actors, “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” -- now playing at Ojai ACT -- is a gloriously zingy, fresh twist on a Christmas classic.
The plot roughly follows that of Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol” but now the spotlight is turned on poor, damned Jacob Marley, whom acclaimed playwright Tom Mula always thought got a raw deal in Dickens’ tale.
Traditionalists have nothing to fear. The charm, tone, structure, and spirit of the original remain intact and the redemptive holiday message is only deepened. The costuming is archetypal Victorian and Mula’s script preserves all the lively richness of Dickens’ language with the odd, happy little contemporary addition.
“Marley is dead,” we are told at the start. The “dry, old spider” has been cast into Hell which, as many of us fear, is a sort of eternal, infernal, labyrinthine bureaucracy. There is only one way he can save his soul. The Record Keeper (a chipper Jill Dolan) offers him a deal. As he reads the contract he sees the enormity of the task he must accomplish.
"Scrooge? I have to redeem old Scrooge? The one man I knew who was worse than I was? Impossible!"
Marley is not alone in his quest though. He is assigned his own personal imp, a mischievous little hell-sprite called a Bogle (played with darkly twinkling relish by Anna Kotula). With only 24 earth hours to manage it, together their ghostly visitations to Scrooge begin.
Buddy Wilds gives us a wonderfully crusty, wily Scrooge, a feisty “old reptile” bellowing against the spirits before he finally, famously breaks before cock’s crow on Christmas morning and sees how much happier life can be when one is generous and kind.
Cecil Sutton delivers an agile, ultimately moving performance as Marley, alternatively bewildered, disgruntled, and anguished as his infernal chains, forged in a life of grasping greed, dig into his flesh (“And each becomes the thing he loves”).
His great redemption comes not from witnessing Scrooge’s transformation but earlier when, for the first time in his life (and death) -- and with his own fate still hanging in the balance -- he experiences a flood of overwhelming compassion as he watches Scrooge writhe and suffer in pain and regret. He feels a great warmth enter his body and Sutton seems to grow in front of our eyes, his voice transformed from reedy querulousness to an expansive, joyous boom that carries the audience with him.
Director John Medeiros’ collaborative style draws real feeling for the characters from his cast, amping up the comic elements and getting the most out of the witty script. Much is achieved using a minimalist set reminiscent of filing cabinets with clever use of different staging levels for the actors. This keeps our eyes moving, the scenes dynamic, and ensures we are ever-aware of the after-life playing right alongside life, seen and unseen as time and trickery demand.
Medeiros mixes up the pace of the action deliciously to heighten the overall comedic effect. The “sitting in silence” scene between Sutton and Wilds is stilted, awkward, comic gold.
Nothing is sacrificed and much is gained in this inspired, delightful new classic, produced by Len Klaif. This show feels like Christmas. Dickens would be pleased.
“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” runs at Ojai ACT, 113 S. Montgomery St. through Dec. 20th; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 or $15 for seniors, students and Art Center members. The show is not recommended for children 10 and under. Tickets are available by calling 640-8797 or online at: www.OjaiACT.org