Dickens's story of geriatric, malignant crotchetiness transformed via supernatural shock therapy into last-second sunshine and benevolence must, at some point, have packed potency and insight. That moment has passed, which happens when stories are tediously retold, and so, with respect to old Charles, it's time to move on to another district of drama.
Ah, but wait. Tom Mula's Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol lures us right back into the miasma of Victorian moralism. The story, as the title suggests, concerns Scrooge's former business partner (seven years dead on the night of A Christmas Carol), no slouch himself in the departments of miserliness, disdain, and all-around spiteful unpleasantness.
Jim Lichtscheidl is alone on the stage for the entire evening, portraying upward of 20 characters. In the early scenes his Marley awakens in the afterlife; in this case, it's a bureaucratic holding zone in which one's actions are weighed on a ledger. Marley, naturally, is in the fast lane to the fiery pit.
JACOB MARLEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL
at Park Square Theatre
through December 21
THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE
at Children's Theatre Company
through January 3
These early sequences are reminiscent of Victorian spiritualism, with ghosts wailing and lamenting and earning themselves all manner of ironic torments. Marley is quickly assigned his signature chains (as well as a tiny light creature that calls itself Bogle), and he makes it clear very quickly that a trip to Hell will be one doozy of an attitude adjustment.
Lichtscheidl is entirely compelling, verging on masterful as he negotiates this stuff, changing voice and posture from one instant to the next and crafting Marley convincingly as a gruff codger who gradually comes around to notions of compassion. (Director Richard Cook must have felt like a shrink counseling a particularly vivid case of multiple personality disorder.) Playwright Mula, with a knack for one-liners, steers his ship through this moralistic ghost story without colliding with the religious icebergs that lurk everywhere.
The play begins to feel tethered once it starts to parallel the familiar Dickens material (it's odd to miss being in Hell, but there it is), and the need to cover all bases extends the proceedings a fraction longer than they need to be. But we end up with an intelligent, soulful holiday show (delivered by a giving, purposeful performer) that makes the case that our lives are better lived with open, passionate hearts throughout this season and all the ones to follow. Which is an idea that won't get a hint of humbug from me.
Children's Theatre Company's current production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe takes a tasteful step back from temptations of spectacle (wise, given the audience's probable familiarity with the CGI-drenched Narnia films), focusing on C.S. Lewis's lovely escapist story of stepping into the mythic.
Which isn't to say there aren't visual treats. Autumn Ness's White Witch arrives with flash and arch sneer, while Dean Holt turns in performances alternately quietly touching and frighteningly feral as the faun Tumnus and his tormentor Maugrim. By the time Aslan the lion (Ansa Akyea) arrives, though, it's in simple costume, with Akyea conveying regal calm and leonine severity.
But there's a lot of story to tell, and it shows. The four youths around which the story revolves are moved from station to station so rapidly that at times it verges on manic. (Riccardo Hernández's set evokes clean, abstract lines, leaving the audience to rely on its imagination. Which is good.) This Lion hits its marks, but the effort to bring it in at two hours is abundantly evident. It's ironic that, in a show that gives its story and text room to breathe, the effect can at times be breathless.