courtesy photoKhris Lewin

‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’ misses Dickens

During a season when many theaters trot out their usual holiday cash cows, it’s refreshing that the Marin Theatre Company, rather than repeating last year’s hit “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” is presenting Tom Mula’s 2001 take on the Dickens standby “A Christmas Carol.”

Of course, adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” abound, but Mula’s is unique: a high-energy, low-tech ensemble piece in which four actors play various roles and in which the familiar morality tale unfurls from Jacob Marley’s point of view.

When Marley (a convincingly anguished Khris Lewin) arrives in hell bound in chains, a grumpy bookkeeper (the amazingly transformative Stacy Ross) assigns him to redeem his old partner, Scrooge. Maybe if he accomplishes the task, he’ll be released from hell.

He is aided by a bogle, a mischievous, mythical creature (Rami Margron, lithe and acrobatic).

Scrooge (Nicholas Pelczar, pale and glowering in a white nightgown and cap) proves, as expected, to be hostile, but over the course of almost two hours, Marley — alternately discouraged and persistent — conjures up the requisite three ghosts to frighten and sway him.

The strong ensemble takes on various roles, including a narrating chorus, the ghosts and, briefly, a few familiar Dickens characters.

Under Jon Tracy’s imaginative direction, the actors conjure a spooky atmosphere with little more than hand-held flashlights (evocative lighting design by Kurt Landisman).

A recurring shadowy form on an upstage screen — no spoilers here — is especially dramatic. It’s one instance where playwright Mula enriches Dickens’ theme quite effectively.

But although he has seized upon an intriguing concept, Mula hasn’t done much more with it than parallel the original tale. That it’s told from Marley’s viewpoint isn’t especially meaningful, since Marley’s journey to save his immortal soul basically follows the same trajectory as Scrooge’s.

It’s just that Marley’s dead, while Scrooge — not so much. So we get fragments of Dickensian dialogue, along with Mula’s own writing that traces Marley’s (somewhat overlong) attempt to reform the heartless old miser.

We also miss an emotionally satisfying sense, scriptwise, of precisely what prompts Marley’s personal attitude adjustment (although Lewin’s awkward, experimental attempt to laugh is hilarious).

There are some magical scenes along the way, thanks to this fine production. However, ultimately it feels pretty much like “A Christmas Carol,” but without enough of Dickens’ captivating language, nor his wonderfully funny and touching characters.

REVIEW

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol

Presented by the Marin Theatre Company

Where: 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 22

Tickets: $36 to $58

Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org

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