BWW Reviews: Next Stop Rings in the Season with JACOB MARLEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL
If you turn to page 8 of this past Sunday's New York Times' Arts section (December 8, for those who lose track of the days this time of year), you'll see a full-page photo montage of Scrooges-some in night-caps, some in top hats; some bespectacled, some bearded; some in high dudgeon, some scared out of their wits, and of every hue imaginable. It's safe to say that Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is about as essential to the Christmas experience these days as Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker."
But what if you've been there and done that? What if you've seen all you want to see of His Imperial Crankiness, and you're ready for another take on the old tale? More importantly-what if your children have the same restlessness? How do you get everyone in the spirit of the season, without boring them to death?
Herndon, Virginia's Next Stop Theatre has just the thing: a production of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, a one-man marvel that gives us the behind-the-scenes story to one of Dickens' most neglected heroes. As performed by the lithe and wily Ray Ficca, Marley comes out of The Shadows for one night (chains optional) to take us through the trials and tribulations of being not just Scrooge's long-suffering partner, but also his eternally-suffering guardian angel.
We discover that the gates to the afterlife are guarded by-guess who?-an accountant, who swivels from his Victorian writing desk to inform Marley that his (ahem) psychic account is not in order. That's Nightmare #1-discovering that eternity looks a lot like your cubicle at work. Nightmare #2 comes when this nerd from Eternal Accounting demands that Marley settle his debts with the Almighty by getting his partner Scrooge to have a complete change of heart-in 24 hours, natch. 'Sure,' you're thinking-'piece of cake. How hard can that be?'
Seriously though, compared to Marley's new gig Sisyphus had it easy with that rock ...
Over the course of 2 hours, Ficca takes us on one helluva sleigh ride, tracing the challenges and ingenious fixes Marley and his Bogle devise in their effort to get Scrooge to become human, for once. (For the uninitiated a Bogle is a wee Celtic sprite, represented here by a red bulb that looks suspiciously like Rudolph's nose. Ouch.) As with Dickens' original story, Marley's Christmas Carol requires constant changes of scene with characters galore, all of them managed here by Marley (Ficca) himself.
Jennifer McDuffee's appropriately shabby set, divided into three distinct areas (with a few of Kathy Dunlap's symbolic costumes hung overhead), quickly becomes a playground where Ficca gives lighting designer Steve Holliday a serious run for his money, leaping here and creeping there, never losing track of the story. Sound Designer Ben Allen embellishes the action with the occasional magical flourish, and Director Rob McQuay has wisely given Ficca free reign to use the space as he sees fit-the effect is enchanting. Having done one-man shows myself, I have to take my hats off to anyone who can manage the 2 hours' traffic this tale requires and still keep audiences engaged. If anyone in the DC theatre scene can pull this one off, Ficca certainly can.
The genesis for the show is Chicago actor Tom Mula, the Goodman Theatre's beloved Scrooge, who created Marley's Christmas Carol a few years back. His version of Dickens' tale has become something of a seasonal fixture, but as with any one-man show there are challenges-Mula calls for the actor to portray a large cast of characters, and beyond a certain point it can be hard for audiences to tell one from the other. Consider that ancient pantomimes limited themselves to 3 roles per play, and with good reason-it's about as many as the audience can be expected to handle. The plot gets especially thick here by Act 2, when Scrooge and Marley are in really going at it; and this being Ficca's first go at the play, there may be a rough spot here and there. But this is a quibble I have with the playwright, not the performer, who is clearly in his element and is well worth the drive out the Dulles Access Road ($2.75 in tolls each way) to see. Next Stop is yet another sign that suburban Virginia can now go toe-to-toe with Maryland for high-quality professional theatre.