Marley was dead." Those are the first words of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, although he still pops up again a couple of times: Scrooge sees his old partner's face in the door knocker, looking like "a bad lobster in a dark cellar," and Marley's ghost later appears festooned in chains and warns the old miser to change his ways. But that's it for Marley, as far as the book is concerned. Having accomplished his mission, he apparently howls off again into eternal darkness — though I do remember that he appeared in the finale of the old Denver Center production of A Christmas Carol, unchained and winged among the rapturous celebrants, a touch I particularly liked.
Writer Tom Mula has decided to go to bat for this wronged wraith. In Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, he tells a story that parallels the one we're all familiar with, then goes well beyond it. On his death, Marley discovers that he can avoid hell and the obliteration of his soul only by finding a way to redeem Scrooge — a man whom he detests for reasons other than those we know from Dickens, which are revealed during the course of Mula's script. The task eventually softens Marley's own hard heart, and through a supreme sacrifice, he, too, finds freedom. At the Denver Victorian Playhouse, all of this is communicated by four actors, who each play several roles and alternate between narrating the action and inhabiting their characters.
The play keeps snatches of the original plot but is most interesting when it strays from it. Marley doesn't simply call up the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present as he does in the book; he becomes them. And when, as Past, he takes Scrooge back through time, he finds himself visiting his own boyhood instead of Scrooge's — and we discover that it was far, far bleaker. Positively Dickensian, in fact. Motherless and abandoned, the young Marley was taken in by a kindly old gentlemen, Mr. Fezziwig — the same Fezziwig who later became Marley's and Scrooge's employer and whom they conspired to cheat. Another familiar moment that we see sideways rather than full on is Scrooge's awakening on Christmas morning, when he realizes that he's still alive and can change his ways. While he chortles, plans and cavorts, the focus is not on him, but on Marley and his difficult continuing journey. In one of the playwright's most successful devices, Marley now has a sidekick, a fairy figure called the Bogle. Risen from the bogs and woodlands of old Ireland to torment him, the Bogle rapidly becomes a mercurial, comic and unpredictable advocate.
Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol
Presented by the Denver Victorian Playhouse through December 23, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, www.denvervic.com.
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The moral emphasis has shifted slightly. Like the original, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol emphasizes personal redemption and the importance of empathy and giving to others — a remarkably potent message. Something in all of us wants to help; there are neurological studies that show altruistic behavior activating the exact parts of the brain associated with pleasure. That's one of the reasons that A Christmas Carol has enjoyed so many incarnations over the years, and why its message still moves us. In a world distorted by blind commerce, it's sometimes hard to remember that caritas is at least as ubiquitous as cruelty and greed. But where Dickens's masterpiece focuses a clear light on the suffering of the poor and the moral depravity of some men of business, Mula's attention is more on the individual and the personal struggle with conscience. We humans are accompanied at all times by angels who prompt us to do good, according to the Bogle, and their message is particularly urgent because we are also stalked by death. The Cratchits play a very peripheral role here. While their absence excises some of the story's sentimentality, the change in focus detracts a little from the breadth of Dickens's vision.
The Victorian Playhouse occupies a basement space in a private house built at the turn of the last century by George Swartz, one of the many tuberculosis patients who came to Colorado in search of better health. Warm and beautiful, steeped in history and filled with the ghosts of its own past, the building provides the perfect background for this entertaining and quietly moving piece of theater. Director Terry Dodd has done well with the material, setting it on an uncluttered stage with just a few telling props and pieces of furniture (including a little gargoyle that looks down on Marley and the Bogle from its cornice at St. Paul's Cathedral). The cast is generally solid, and Rita Broderick is particularly charming and adept as the shape-shifting Bogle.
As we leave the theater, the quiet, snowy neighborhood street receives our footprints in silence, and the cast's final blessing remains in our ears: "May we all find our way home."