By Bill Varble
It's a notion dear to the hearts of English professors everywhere: Imagine a well-known story from the point of view of a different character. "Huckleberry Finn," say, as narrated by Jim.
In playwright Tom Mula's "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol," the game is given away by the title. Marley, who has a small part as Ebenezer Scrooge's dead partner in Dickens' beloved novella, here moves to center stage.
To say that his objective still is to save Scrooge from Marley's fate — Dickens was content to leave ghostly Marley wandering the world in his chains — would not be inaccurate. But neither would it be complete. This Marley's arc is more complicated than that.
"Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" made its first appearance locally last year when it was presented by the Ashland New Plays Festival in a dramatic reading by Douglas Rowe. In what may become a holiday tradition, Rowe repeated the performance Wednesday night at Ashland Springs Hotel in Ashland, playing all the parts in a one-man show. Another reading, planned for 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 18, will be followed by a theater talk with Rowe and interviewer John Rose. Tickets are $25, which includes champagne and dessert, and are available at www.showtix4u, Paddington Station, 800-967-8167 or by emailing email@example.com.
At the outset, sour, proud, angry old Marley finds himself in a Kafkaesque afterlife (in Dickens' tale he's seven years dead as the story begins) in which the rules are murky, but authority seems to be vested in a mysterious old bureaucrat known as the Record Keeper (in a film version he'd be played by the English actor Leo McKern of "Rumpole of the Bailey").
After seeing that the flummoxed Marley is fitted with the chains he forged in life, the Record Keeper sends him back to the living world with a seemingly impossible assignment: redeem Scrooge. Of course, we already know that from Dickens' book, not to mention movies, operas and the live versions of the story that pop up on countless stages every December.
But this time out Marley is our man. If he fails in his quest, he will spend eternity chained to the emblems of commerce — cash boxes and ledgers and the like — that were the stuff of his life, to the point that his identity will merge with theirs. As he heads back to the world of the living, he has a sidekick, a puckish sprite named Bogle (in British folklore a bogle is a mischievous ghost who takes pleasure in tormenting and perplexing humans).
A one-person show is one thing when the actor is portraying one character, or two or three. In addition to reading the part of an omniscient narrator, Rowe plays 20 or so (I lost count), endowing many of them with distinct voices.
Bogle is a tough, unsentimental, street-wise urchin, perhaps from London's East End. Scrooge snaps his lines like the brittle old reptile he is. Fred, Scrooge's nephew, is cluelessly avid. And so on. It's a credit to Rowe's reading chops that we never lose track of who's doing what to whom.
Rowe, who is the ANPF's artistic director, has lived in the valley since 1997, when he came to play Willy Loman in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Death of a Salesman." He ran the Laguna Playhouse in California for 20 years and has acted in some two-dozen movies and countless TV shows.
Originally produced at Chicago's Goodman Theater in 1998, "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" would lend itself to all manner of productions, from the spare to the spiced-up. As it develops and illuminates perhaps the most intriguing backstory in Dickens' original tale, it serves up beloved characters, lots of laughs and the requisite heartwarming lesson.
Its greatest weakness is that it is not, after all, Dickens' original. Its greatest strength, in this season in which you're reminded that you've seen that show umpteen times, is that it's not Dickens' original.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ANPF presents 'Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol'
By Bill Varble