By Hugh Hunter
It is the perfect holiday season treat. Now running at Stagecrafters, The Casabuena Cultural Production of “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” (1995) turns the classic Dickens tale on its head to sterling effect. It helps to know the original, as playwright Tom Mula cherry-picks the story. You do not lose sight of Scrooge and his plight, but here Scrooge plays second fiddle to Marley.
After the fashion of improvisational Elizabethan theater, director Mariangela Saavedra sponges from the stage set of Stagecrafters’ “The Miser.” She dispenses with music and special scenic effects, using choreography and dramatic lighting to keep you engaged. At times, the show suggests a radio play. Broom in hand, Browning Sterner plays The Stage Hand (a character creation of director Saavedra) to give periodic narration and push the story along.
You first meet Marley in Hell. In his well-timed writhing, Brian Weiser makes you feel Marley’s desperate need to escape. With a bow-legged wobble, Patrick Cathcart plays Hell’s record keeper. His comical, bureaucratic indifference highlights Marley’s despair. (Cathcart also plays that other record keeper, Bob Cratchit.). In this smart play, the record keeper and Marley do what you would expect from reprobate businessmen: they draw up a contract.
Here is the deal: Marley must redeem Scrooge from his evil miserliness by crack of dawn to win his freedom. “Jacob Marley” is full of humor, but it is not a send-up. To the contrary, the play creates a new sphere of dramatic suspense.
With a delicious turn of the tables, Scrooge becomes the nemesis. You know how the Scrooge story will end, but what will be the fate of Jacob Marley?
In his return to earth, Marley is aided and tormented by The Boggle (Teresa Nutter), an impish fellow-traveler and Hell escapee, who dances about, goads Marley and sometimes buzzes his ear with red laser messages. With picturesque dress and grumpy slouch, Jim Broyles is a finely crotchety Scrooge. But in this show, you feel distant from Scrooge’s despair.
Marley is the one you care about. A shape-shifter, Marley becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past and inadvertently is forced to relive his childhood suffering. We come to identify with him, and with fine irony, the Scrooge who frustrates him at every turn is Marley’s only way to become a star traveler and win redemption.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” will run through Dec 23. For reservations, call 215-247-8881.