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North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre (NRACT) has teamed up with Actors Comedy Lab this season to bring us their Christmas offering, a rather contemporary take on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol penned in 1995 by Chicago actor and playwright Tom Mula. He titles his remake Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, taking a few liberties with the original Dickens tale by retelling it from Marley's point of view. This seems at first to present a problem, because, as we all know, Jacob Marley's already dead. "Has been," Scrooge tells us, "these seven years."
In order to get around this seeming conundrum, Mula takes us on a trip through the world Dickens created to bring Marley into his own tale. The show begins the second Marley dies, and then takes us on a fanciful journey into the afterlife. This allows us to become better acquainted with the old ghost, and what he had to go through in order to be allowed to "visit" the old miser. We also learn more about Jacob and Ebenezer and their partnership: how it began and how it ended.
Actors Comedy Lab has had this little gem in their repertoire for some time now. It only requires four actors, and the set is as fanciful as the idea is, to begin with. For the Lab, Tony Hefner has played the title role for every run, opposite Scott Nagel as Scrooge. For many years, the other two roles, female, were also consistent. The Lab made some changes a few years back, and since that time, these roles have also been played by the same actresses: Bridget Patterson plays the Bogle, an impish little fairy that is supposed to guide Marley on his journey through the netherworld; and Bonnie Webster plays the Record Keeper, that celestial accountant who keeps tabs on every human being's balance books from the time he is born until the time he dies. It's the Record Keeper who gives Jacob the rather gargantuan task of rehabilitating his old partner. Jacob is not even sure such a thing is possible.
The carrot offered Marley is that, if he can do this one thing, he will be free of all those chains and locks he bears. So, with the aid of his trusty Bogle, Jacob undertakes this seemingly impossible endeavor. He takes the first step by going to see the old coot. Their first meeting is not exactly as Dickens described it. Oh, it starts out that way, but Scrooge is a wily old so-and-so, and he exerts his old masterful control over his own feelings, and sends Jacob packing. So Jacob tries a different approach.
Mula uses a good deal of what Dickens gave us to bookend his work, but there is quite a bit here that is of Mula's own imagination. We learn of Marley's own upbringing, a very Dickensian one in its own right, and we learn when and where Jacob and Marley met, and formed the strange and unique bond that lasted Marley's lifetime.
To watch Hefner and Nagel play these two characters we have come to know so well, is to watch two veteran performers in roles they have been able to hone over time, a situation not often afforded a man who treads the boards. Both actors were quite comfortable in their characters' skins, but it didn't stop there. It was obvious that these characters have been added to, layer after layer, nuanced and filled out in a way that only time with a character can allow. Both Nagel and Hefner have taken the bare bones that the playwright has given them, and grown them. The characters in Mula's Carol are not the ones in Dickens'. Similar, yes, but subtly different. Nagel's Scrooge was nasty and mean and as inconsiderate of his fellow man as is the original, but there is a great deal more here. This Scrooge was also clever and wily, and he very nearly defeated his old partner at his own game. And Marley was fleshed out from a cameo to a leading man. Mula has given us an entirely new slant on Dickens: whereas Scrooge is visited by four different ghosts in the Dickens tale, he's visited, in Mula's, by only one. Here, the ghosts sent to Scrooge on Christmas Eve are all manifestations of Marley himself.
At one point, Marley asks of his Bogle, but more of himself, why he is trying to do such a ridiculously monumental of a task as this. Over the course of the play, Marley discovers why. So we learn not only how Marley revitalizes Scrooge, we learn why as well. And that understanding, dear reader, is the reason Mula wrote this little gem, in the first place.
Immediately on the conclusion of this show, this audience was on its feet, with an applause that was loud, boisterous, and heartfelt. It was not only for a job well done, it was also because we learned a little bit more about these characters we have come to know so well, and we as human beings are always glad to know more about our old friends. So, carry on, Mr. Marley, Mr. Scrooge. May we all learn the life lessons it took you two lifetimes to learn.
Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol continues through Sunday, December 16. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.