The sound of Dickensian carolers lured the opening-night audience from the lobby of the Carriage House at Bell Court into the theater for Studio Players' latest production, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol.
As patrons found their seats, four Victorian-clad singers finished their carols by wishing the crowd a "Merry Christmas" before slipping into the audience to find their own seats.
Their exit suddenly drained all of the obvious Christmas cheer from the room, mostly because it revealed the first unobstructed view of the stage. The minimalist set stood spookily empty and gray, with a few basic building blocks of black furniture dotting the landscape. On a wall hung a display of chains and restraints. There were no red bows, no pretty lights, no jingle bells, no indication whatsoever that we were anywhere other than a colorless void in the middle of nowhere.
Turned out, that is what hell is like.
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And Jacob Marley, the character barely seen in Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, is stuck there, floating around in the nothingness, suffering in his chains for all eternity. Unless, that is, he can get his old partner, Scrooge, to have a complete and irreversible change of heart within 24 hours.
Playwright Tom Mula puts a twist on the Dickens tale by supposing that Marley's appearance in the story is self-motivated. Even the appearances of the Christmas ghosts are Marley-inspired.
This innovative concept is fleshed out with the comical afterlife rules and regulations of an oddball universe and makes for a fun and rewarding, if atypical, evening of holiday theater.
The show could use some general polish — a few flubbed lines and some awkward pauses suggested that the cast has yet to hit its stride — but its creative, quirky style and original content probably will appeal to even the Scroogiest of theatergoers.
Director Carly Preston and the ensemble cast deserve praise for taking an artistic risk. The minimalist setting is a rarity among Studio's shows, and so is its non-traditional narrative methods. Mula uses story theater, a narrative mode that employs storytelling elements in the play's basic structure. Characters sometimes comment on their own actions as third-person narrators, and actors occasionally weave in and out of various characters, fluidly maintaining the spoken narrative among them.
Speaking of characters, Bill Nichols, Greg Jones, Eddie Salone and Bob Singleton are solidly cast as, respectively, Marley, Scrooge, Cratchett and Bogle, a kind of afterlife imp who helps Marley on his mission to change Scrooge.
Nichols is especially effective in the second act, when Marley's plan to visit Christmases past unexpectedly takes him to his own past holidays, one painful one in particular. Marley's descent into his own memories is a particularly rewarding aspect of the show, cultivating the deeper holiday message.
Singleton's Bogle, however, threatens to steal the show. With a throaty, growling voice, biting humor and gnarled, disfigured movements, Bogle is a crowd favorite who functions not unlike Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the immortal comic relief and instigator of events.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention Mylissa Crutcher's lighting design. With such a blank canvas for a set, Crutcher's lighting plays a pivotal role in the story's evolution, supporting Preston and the company's fresh take on a holiday classic.