Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol
Park Square Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review The Holiday Pageant


Dane Stauffer
Photo by Petronella J Ytsma
Perhaps no work of literature has had as much influence on our sense of Christmas as Charles Dickens' novella "A Christmas Carol." It cast Christmas as a celebration of the impulse to do good, to cherish family and friends, of generosity, charity and good will to all. Even as it paints a bleak view of the social landscape of its day, it offers unbridled optimism for our potential to rise above greed and malice, and regard one another with love based on the mere fact of our common humanity. If this be viewed as a "Christian" message, it makes scarce reference to the nativity of Jesus or to the intervention of a higher power. Ebenezer Scrooge, by revisiting turning points in his own life, observing the lives of those within his current orbit and recognizing the end to which he will come, finds within himself the seeds from which his redemption sprouts.

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, Tom Mula's play now running at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage, takes this theme a step further by asking: can a man who has already passed on from this world still find redemption? Mula makes such a case for Jacob Marley, Scrooge's deceased business partner who has only a brief, albeit essential, part in the Dickens' work. Mula invents answers to the questions of why Marley returns after seven years, to save Scrooge's from the moral abyss he faces, and why Scrooge, not Marley, is given this chance at redemption.

We begin seven years before Scrooge's fateful Christmas Eve, to the occasion of Marley's death. Marley is required to submit to various protocols of the netherworld, and given his record of misanthropy, he is assigned to eternally carry the chains he forged in life. However, it turns out that there is a loophole, a way for him to avoid that grim fate. He is assigned a task, but one so utterly hopeless as to be scarcely worth the effort: to bring about in Scrooge a genuine and total change of heart. Further, Marley is allowed only twenty-four hours to complete this impossible assignment.

Still, with nothing to lose, and the Bogel offering encouragement, Marley takes the leap. We know from Mr. Dickens how things go for Scrooge, but what of Marley? We find him to be far more a part of the visits by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come than is hinted at by Dickens, and that in the process of imparting a change of heart upon Scrooge, Marley undergoes his own transformation.

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol is written as a play for one actor to serve as a narrator, and to perform all the parts—Marley, Scrooge, the clerk receiving Marley in the next world, and a witty and wily sprite called a Bogel who becomes Marley's guide through his own Christmas epiphany, as well as bits and pieces of characters familiar from the Dickens work, such as Scrooge's nephew Fred, the clerk Bob Cratchit, and Bob's sickly son Tiny Tim. Mula's text gives each character its own voice, so we can easily tell one from another.

However, actor Dane Stauffer goes far beyond the text in giving each character its own presence. The play's shifts in language are paralleled by Stauffer's posture and movement in a performance that is extremely physical. If the story and our growing appreciation of Jacob Marley's spiritual journey was not enough to hold our interest, Stauffer's shape-shifting among the characters would be reason enough to see this show. Through voice and movement, he brings out both the humor and vulnerability of each character. There is also a tremendous amount of text to deliver. At the final preview performance I attended, Stauffer had it all but nailed.

Director Richard Cook has worked closely with Stauffer to establish fluidity throughout the play, and make full use of the space available on the Boss Theater's Thrust Stage. The stage setting is virtually bare, with a few platforms serving as desks, stools, beds, and other necessary furnishings, as well as lifting the characters up off the ground, such as Scrooge's flight from his bed chamber back to Christmas past, or the poignant reflections shared between Marley and the Bogel as they sit perched atop St. Paul's Cathedral from where the people bustling about on the ground seem, in Marley's words, "so temporary."

Michael P. Kittel's lighting design and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design work upon the bare setting to reflect the transformation of time and place, and the feelings they carry, such as when the light cast by a candle set on the floor creates a narrow passageway from life to the netherworld, or the sounds of the chains make real the terror of the eternal sentence given to Marley. Stauffer wears one costume throughout, a suit appropriate to a businessman of 1830s London.

At the opening of the play, Mula takes his time building to the point where Marley embarks on his own transformative journey. It feels like the descriptions of the realms of the netherworld, while well crafted, are biding time until we get to the main event. However, once that point arrives—and the real spark occurs when the Bogel is introduced, giving Marley a character with whom he can spar over ideas and seek support for the fate he has brought upon himself. Their interplay is one of the major delights of the play, and of Stauffer's performance.

Having a single actor play all the parts allows for quick transitions, and puts everything through the eyes of Jacob Marley, so that we come to know him as well as we know his past business partner.I won't reveal how things end for Marley, except to say that, like Scrooge, he is a changed man after journeying with the spirits. Overall, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol is a beautiful work, bringing new insights to an old and well-trod tale, and offering as much in the way of heart-warming moments. Park Square has done well to cast Dane Stauffer, whose earnest and playful performance makes the piece a joy to experience.

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol continues at Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage through December 20, 2015. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 —60.00; Age 30 and younger, $21.00. A $2.00 facility fee is added to each ticket. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Written by: Tom Mula; Director and Scenic Designer: Richard Cook; Assistant Directors: Rex Davenport and Elohim Peña; Costume Designer: Elin Anderson; Lighting Designer: Michael P. KIttel; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Stage Manager: Laura Topham.

Cast: Dane Stauffer


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