Brightening the Blackness

Actors and imagination light up Blue Barn’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol

“The play’s the thing,” Will Shakespeare wrote. And that’s true of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol at the Blue Barn’s Downtown Space. But Nils Haaland’s portrayal of Marley makes the most of Tom Mula’s brilliant script, and there’s no drop-off in the performances by Alan Brincks as the Bogle, Doug Blackburn as Scrooge and Scott Working as everyone from the record keeper to Bob Cratchit and Marley’s drunken father. You could almost argue that lighting’s the thing, especially when wed with the talent directed by Kevin Lawler. When Marley morphs into the Ghost of Christmas Present, Haaland’s face, the narration says, becomes as big as the sun, and lighting designer Bill Van Deest helps the actor transform his previously pruny face to one that beams like the sun. It’s all about imagination, and that’s what distinguishes it from the wonderful Omaha Community Playhouse presentation of A Christmas Carol by the two Charlies, Dickens and adaptor Jones. The Playhouse version is rich in color, costumes and music as it brings the London streets to life. The Blue Barn play is richest in its use of language to transport us. The Playhouse used to fill the stage with a huge hooded Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, its long wooden arm pointing toward the grave. Then it went to an awesome fiber optics ghost of ethereal eeriness. At the Barn, we hear that “the Shadow raises its arm and points a bony figure,” and we join Scrooge, Marley and the Bogle in peering upward into the darkness where the invisible ghost is a palpable presence in our mind’s eye. So, after all is said about other virtues, the imagination is really the thing, along with the language. In writing reviews, the biggest challenge is supporting either praise or criticism with illustrative examples, and I won’t pretend to capture all the charms of Mula’s mix of dialogue and narration. But one of its pleasures comes from the Bogle’s banter with an angry Marley, finding himself dead and confronted at the counting house by the weight of his sins. The Bogle, an underworld creature assigned to guide and perhaps redeem him, jollies him along, often addressing him as “old pudding,” “old thing,” “old crumb-pot” and “old crumpet.” When the now-defunct Stages of Omaha presented this play several years ago, the Bogle was presented as a little imp. Women have also played the role. Brincks looks more like a swashbuckling leading man. Not as peculiar as the earlier Bogle, he’s as convincing in his generally good-natured guidance of Marley, who must redeem the heartless Scrooge to win a “transfer” from Hell. The story begins in darkness with the four players lined up, holding candles which are lighted, one by another. They open with narration and end with narration. If I had a figgy pudding, I’d offer it as a prize if you can guess the familiar closing line. Throughout, Mula includes lines from Dickens’ original story, lines familiar to anyone of us Omahans who’ve seen the Playhouse version umpteen times. Certainly lines familiar to Haaland and Lawler, both of whom have played Scrooge in touring companies, and to Blackburn who has been Marley on the Playhouse stage. We know that Marley “wore the chains he forged in life,” and that Cratchit wants the whole day tomorrow “if it’s quite convenient,” and that Scrooge considers it both inconvenient and unfair. We knew about Scrooge’s early years but we didn’t know about Marley’s unfortunate childhood. In short, Mula melds the familiar with the unfamiliar, gaining the advantage of our familiarity and adding a new and unique perspective. He doubles, even triples, the redemptive power of the play. We await not only the unlikely redemption of Scrooge, but the salvation of Marley and the surprising bonus for the Bogle. Minus the great stagecraft of the Playhouse, we still experience the heart of the matter on a dark stage with a desk and little else. Well, a great lot if you add the actors. Haaland and Brincks are well supported by Blackburn’s nasty then repentant Scrooge and Working’s vivid and varied portrayals. An impressive musical score also brightens the blackness. Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 18, Thurs.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. and Sun. 6 p.m. by the Blue Barn Theatre in the Downtown Space, 416 S. 11th St. Tickets are $25/$20 students. Call 345.1576 or visit bluebarn.org.

posted at 02:59 pm
on Wednesday, December 01st, 2010

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