Too much telling, not enough showing. ARt's Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (through Dec. 12 at SFCC's Spartan Theater) delivers the same encouraging message as the Dickens original. It even finds a creative way to retell the familiar story and features a couple of outstanding performances. But the "story theater" approach of playwright Tom Mula has its drawbacks.
Mula first refocused Dickens' tale on the story of Scrooge's business partner in a novel of his own, then produced a one-man stage version. All of that prose requires extensive narration. Unfortunately, great swaths of all that talk, talk, talking remain in the four-person stage version.
The entire first-act setup presents the Jacob Marley character coming to grips with a) how he's dead and b) how he's going to have to attempt the moral regeneration of one Ebenezer Scrooge. While that story is so familiar that it's trite -- all the more reason to refashion the tale -- Mula has found an ingenious way to tell it. During the Christmas Present sequence, the dramatist even finds a way to make Marley's regeneration more profound by linking it with Christian redemption.
Unfortunately, Mula's play isn't much to look at: actors in their own clothes, a set in gray and beige consisting of a few ramps and platforms. Such barrenness does have the advantage of setting off special effects by contrast: lightning, stars, writhing figures backlit against a scrim, faces illuminated by green lamps from below -- all seem more impressive because of their stark surroundings. For similar reasons, Robert Neuhaus' sound effects and Larry Schanker's (recorded) music figure more prominently.
In asking for a stripped-down look, you see, Mula is expecting us to use our imaginations. That's laudable, if there's enough action onstage for our imaginations to work on. But director Michael Weaver doesn't provide much, especially in the evening's first half. Things pick up after intermission with the appearance of the Past/Present/Future ghosts -- they allow the characters to start interacting, after all -- but even then, the story theater approach requires the actors to act as their own narrators. The characters cry and tell us they are crying, walling off any sympathy from the audience. When Marley (Patrick Treadway), at a moment of intense emotion, tells us directly how much he's trying to appear unemotional, the potential for any genuine emotion drains away.
Yet if the script's method is questionable, the content is still solid. Mula has studded the action with meaningful repetitions: Marley, for example, learns how to time-travel, how to stop time, how to whirl around while giddily flinging coins to the needy -- and in each instance, the second time he does it is charged with deeper meaning.
The play's conclusion is -- here's that inevitable Dickensian word -- heartwarming, with messages about the importance of empathy, persistence, generosity and self-sacrifice scattered throughout. Mula really has transformed Victorian sentiment into something that has a shot at melting hearts of stone even in our cynical modern age.
In the two central performances, David Seitz and Patrick Treadway hit their targets. Seitz's Scrooge -- intimidating, but wiry and middle-aged here -- is cartoonish in his miserliness early on. But he's powerful when he browbeats Marley's ghost -- calling Marley a hypocrite and nearly causing the entire scheme to backfire. With an economy of flinty movement in the scene at Marley's deathbed, Seitz sketches a stone-cold monster incapable of compassion -- and then, just minutes later, had children in the audience giggling over Scrooge's exuberance when, finally in a giving vein, he gyrates with hip-shimmies of joy.
If anything, Treadway's range is even more impressive. When his character is called upon to peel the flesh off his face or decompose in front of the Bogle's eyes (and ours), Treadway actually makes us see the process and feel it happen. He's amazing when the jovial spirit of Christmas Present enters him: laughter cascades out of him. He's scary when he drags Marley's chains up the stairs, genuinely distressed on the several occasions he nearly gives up on trying to reform the old buzzard, then hilarious when he hijacks Scrooge, whirling and twirling him through the sky above London.
Ron Ford chips in with a gruff bookkeeper, an abusive father, even a defiant Bob Cratchit. However, as the Bogle, the mischievous imp who advises Marley on his spiritual journey, Carolyn Crabtree seems miscast. The Bogle is supposed to resemble a miniature Marley, though some not-really-matching clothes don't signify the equation. The decision to make the Bogle a comic Londoner robs the character of nastiness, giving us Cockney and quaint when what's needed is Martin Short with some acting depth, spanning the range from obnoxious to affecting. Crabtree isn't helped by some too-obvious borrowings from It's a Wonderful Life near the end.
In the end, the cutesiness of the Bogle doesn't make up for the flat exposition of the first half: explaining about death and the afterlife, about guardian angels, about our spiritual contracts, about a lot of things.
Too much narration, too much talking about emotions rather than simply playing them. Tom Mula chose the wrong way to present Jacob Marley's alternate version of A Christmas Carol.