Casabuena Cultural Productions’ irreverent take on the beloved Charles Dickens classic follows Marley on a redemptive quest to save his wretched soul. Directed by Mariangela Saavedra, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol feels akin to the 1988 Bill Murray film Scrooged (a classic in its own right), in that it has a modern sensibility, is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and yet manages to maintain all the heart, soul, and mercy of Dickens’ original masterpiece.
The play, written by Tom Mula, begins where you’d expect it – “Marley was dead: to begin with” – and from there takes the audience on an unexpected trip into A Christmas Carol alternate universe that felt like a haunted sleigh ride straight into the depths of Marley’s damned psyche.
We are introduced to a bewildered Marley, played by Brian Weiser, drifting through the halls of hell, which resembled a bureaucratic reimagining of Dante’s 9th circle. He is informed of his demise, his permanent residence in Hell, and that he will be forever doomed to wear the chains he “forged in life, link by link, yard by yard, of his own free will.”
Desperate to escape the fate he rightly earned, he begs the “the Record Keeper,” played by Patrick Cathcart, for some alternative. The Record Keeper, a hellish little accountant with a crook in his back that could rival Quasimodo’s, tasks Marley with saving the only soul more twisted and malevolent than his – Ebenezer Scrooge, a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Marley begrudgingly accepts, hopeful and yet fully aware of the impossibility of coaxing Scrooge towards a genuine change of heart.
However, Marley, newly deceased and unaccustomed to haunting, is assigned a devilish pixie known as “The Bogle,” played by Teresa Nutter, to aid in nudging Scrooge towards the light. There is something beautifully meta about the unlikely duo rehearsing the ways they will scare old Scrooge into conversion. Their relationship reminded me of the dead couple from the Tim Burton film Beetlejuice – awkwardly navigating the learning curve of how to successfully pull off a haunting.
However, Scrooge (played by Jim Broyles), the famously cold-hearted curmudgeon (“Bah Humbug!”), is nonplussed by their amateur antics and insists that Marley is nothing more than an “undigested bit of beef.” Pushed to their limits, The Bogle and Marley abscond with Scrooge on a trip into Christmases gone by. Here we see the familiar journey into Scrooge’s boyhood and witness the slow unraveling of his contorted sense of Christmas spirit. However, this tale is filled with enough twists of its own that the story never feels tired or predictable despite being built around the skeleton of the original.
Another aspect of the play that added to the energetic and abstract nature of the production was the incorporation of stagehand Browning Sterner into the play – adding bits of narration, humorous asides, and literally sweeping the performers offstage at the end of the first half. In fact, all of the actors trade off narration duties, alternating back and forth. It gives the performance an off-the-cuff touch that feels totally immersive. There were points where I felt as if the actors had invited me onstage and, with only the light of a candle between us, were somehow speaking directly to me.
We see The Bogle and Marley lead Scrooge through the past, on to Christmas present and then to the murky shadow of Christmas yet-to-come. Slowly Scrooge’s thorny exterior melts away, but it is Marley’s transformation and his relationship with the Bogle and his destiny that are truly revelatory.
Simply put, the play is all heart and soul! There are no bells or whistles, no wreaths or cords or garland to hide behind. The cast is adorned in simple black attire, the props and sound effects are goofy and economical but the performances are explosive, adamant, and touching. There’s no need for any set dressing, as it would only get in the way of the acting; the humor, the magical spirit of mercy that is the embodiment of this season (and this play), is expressed flawlessly by the five talented actors onstage.
Running Time: Two hours, with an intermission.
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol plays through December 23, 2017 at Casabuena Cultural Productions, performing at The Stagecrafters Theater – 8130 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia, PA 19118. Tickets may be purchased online.