New Moon Rising Logo

THEATRE | FILM | READING | POETRY | RELIGION | MOON MAN ON THE AISLE | | POLITICS | ARCHIVES

Tom Miller (left) and George Steven O'Brien (Right) in Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

Tom Miller as Jacob Marley
George Steven O' Brien as Bogle
in Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

Merely Merry Miller Marley

Shamrock McShane

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol had its premiere performance at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1998. Then as now Bob Falls, the old Wisdom Bridge whiz kid, was the artistic director, and Roche Schulfer, the financial wunderkind, was the executive producer – both still plying their trade at the most prestigious theatre in town after having cut their teeth on the golden age of Chicago theatre in the seventies with David Mamet, Greg Mosher, Stuart Gordon, William H. Macy, and Joey Mantegna. The playwright Tom Mula is a veteran of Chicago theatre too, and the play's theatrical conventions emerged from story theater, a form that blossomed at Chicago's Hull House with its chief practitioners Paul Sills and Viola Spolin, a fine and noble heritage.

Mula immersed himself in Dickens and spun off from A Christmas Carol to wring a novel out of Marley's Christmas Carol before converting it into a play. There are no royalty payments due to long-dead Dickens, making him the perfect xmas present for re-gifting, which may sound a bit harsh, but facts are facts and they're free too. Sooner or later the commercial theatre will be done picking the old boy's bones, but that day's a long way off.

Walking downtown to the ART for the Sunday matinee on a beautiful sunny day, nothing at all like Dickensian London in December, past the various nightspots, the Top, the University Club, the Hipp, the Midnight, shabbily exposing themselves in the sunlight, these are the haunts of Gainesville's pre-eminent performance artist Tom Miller, who capriciously has taken to stage acting in middle age to broaden his palette. Tom Miller is Marley.

The set at the ART is at its blackest best. The lighting, by my son Mike, is heavily atmospheric – but what exactly is the atmosphere? It is not by any means Dickensian London, but, rather, something more like Hell, or at least Tom Mula's idea of Hell, which is an extrapolation of Dickens' underworld, where spirits timelessly regret the precious moments of earthly life they have squandered. It is dark and sepia-shaded and sharp-shadowed with pools of blackness yawning here and there.

The original production team at the Goodman composed a musical score (design by Robert Neuhaus, original music by Larry Schanker) of pervasive moodiness that Mike has augmented with expressionistic illumination to turn whole landscapes of the play, mounted on a black and beautiful and multi-level set, designed and built by the multi-talented George Steven O'Brien and the play's director Carolyne Salt, into a shadow play of stark extremities, beautifully bare of props and marvelously minimal.

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

By Tom Mula
Acrosstown Repertory Theater
Gainesville, Florida
November 29 – December 22, 2013

Gushing from somewhere subterranean streams the most milky foamy fog to make its way across a stage in memory.

Into this fourth dimension wanders Marley, confronted first by the fearsome Record Keeper, who is genially enacted by Will Taylor, who sentences Marley to the hard labor of saving Scrooge. Marley has his work cut out for him. And then he has his work cut from him as his own personal demon emerges, the Bogle, played by the same George Steven O'Brien who has brought such stunning simplicity and sanity to the set, now as crazy as a loon, if loons can be nightmarishly operatic.

Marley's Christmas Carol is pretty much a buddy pic, starring Tom Miller and George Steven O'Brien, a marriage made in Hell, both parties devilishly combustible and unpredictable. You might think that in descending to such depths of despair the tone might turn maudlin. Fear not, there are more laughs here than you can shake a stick at, if that's your idea of a good time. You might just as well use it as a conductor's baton in the rush of a fevered symphony. Carolyne Salt solved the problem of how to cast a drama that is musical in the deepest sense of musing on the pitiful pangs of remorse by handing the parts to a pair of singers. A pair of vaudevillians really, who can mime and mimic and stretch themselves like silly putty.

Scrooge, played dexterously by Gainesville Community Playhouse regular Ed Hunter, has no idea what he's in for when the supernatural overtakes him. This Scrooge's parsimonious persona is so expansive he seems to engulf his spindly demons, to waltz them aside like a big dancing bear in a Disney movie. This is going to be harder than they thought, and funnier than we imagined.

What makes it all even more than that, is the dedication and spirit that Miller and O'Brien bring to the task. It seems really to matter to them. It seems as if they would be doing just what they are doing even if we were not there, if no one were there, just for the challenge of it. At the core of O'Brien's Bogle is the heart of sprite that burns with love, comradeship, fellow feeling. Tom Miller has the depth of personality to wear a spotlight without the illumination bouncing off, and, instead, penetrating. Like the best of actors, and liars, he believes his own lies so thoroughly they overwhelm him – and us. There is real redemption in that, which is what the whole damn story is about after all.
Though the play never escapes the pitfall of defying Aristotle's dictum that drama be performed and not narrated, nevertheless its cathartic effect at the conclusion is full and satisfying.

"Give me two players and a passion," Moliere posited, "and I will show you theatre."

See for yourselves. Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol runs at the ART through December 22.