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To Hell and back

OLT’s "Jacob Marley" wields dark magic

A must-see production for all but our youngest theatergoers.

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In the underrated Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly revisits the sequel's predecessor, observing them from a few yards away. It's as if the events of the previous story are being retold by a second Marty, who sees them from just out of frame. That's the narrative conceit employed by playwright Tom Mula in Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, which approaches Dickens' 1843 yuletide classic from the new perspective of Scrooge's erstwhile business partner, the late, unlamented Jacob Marley.

It's the night before Christmas, so our story begins in darkness, both literal and metaphorical. Jacob Marley, played with empathy by Christopher Cantrell, is in Hell. Providentially, there's a way out, but it's nigh on impossible: He must find a way to get Ebenezer Scrooge (Dennis Rolly), the only man in London stingier than himself, to recognize the error of his ways by Christmas morning. He'll receive questionable assistance from a Gaelic imp called the Bogle (Ryan Holmberg) plus utility player Tim Goebel; but Scrooge, that old crocodile, proves a tough nut to crack.

When I was a theater student in Illinois, our department received a sizeable grant to stage an annual production of A Christmas Carol. Armed with that money, our director threw in every bit of over-the-top spectacle she could muster. She fielded ballerinas and acrobats and marching nutcrackers and drifting snow and a gargantuan Ghost of Christmas Future Bunraku puppet that shot fireworks from its skeletal finger. If you're anticipating that Christmas Carol from Olympia Little Theatre, then you will be, if briefly, disappointed. Most of the bright seasonal gaiety is relegated to the lobby. Cantrell's ramshackle set design, for example, is black and forbidding, the kind of stage that portends broken ankles. Cecil Sommerville's precise lighting design is so dim I heard one veteran tech designer grumble he couldn't see actors' faces. Diana Purvine's costumes are suitably and depressingly Victorian. And Matt Ackerman's theme-park-quality sound design is so deep and foreboding it taxed OLT's speakers opening weekend.

We are, after all, in Hell. But what makes this Christmas Carol for grown-ups so very special is its minuet around Dickens' familiar story; it allows us to feel its emotional impact as if for the first time. We know Ebenezer will rediscover the Christmas spirit, but how will Jacob make that happen? Indeed, how will he and the Bogle escape eternal damnation? Director Pug Bujeaud deploys creative technical designers and a quartet of talented actors (each working at the peak of his abilities) to wring every last twinkle of magic from what could've been a talky, too-dark script. Each actor plays multiple roles, switching accents and personas as quickly and easily as the removal of a scarf. It's a joy to behold. Simply put, this is a must-see production for all but our youngest theatergoers.  One of the best of 2010.

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, through Dec. 19, 7:55 p.m. Thursday–Saturday, 1:55 p.m. Sunday, $10–$12, Olympia Little Theatre,1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia, 360.786.9484

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