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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Paper
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Saving Scrooge
Strollers Theatre presents an alternative Christmas Carol
This time, Marley's the protagonist.
This time, Marley's the protagonist.

Strollers Theatre gives Madison a Christmas gift with Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (through Jan. 6 at the Bartell Theatre). Everyone knows the plot of Charles Dickens' original: Curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed into a kind-hearted philanthropist after a night of ghostly visitations, including one from his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol presents the story as it may have been written if Dickens had chosen Marley for his protagonist.

In playwright Tom Mula's version, Marley can save his soul only by saving that of someone else - namely, Ebenezer Scrooge. The tale that unfolds is far darker than the original, with damnation, regret and death setting the tone. However, director Tony Trout's light touch balances weighty themes with penetrating wit, and four of Madison's finest character actors enliven the most somber moments.

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol is brilliantly literary. Actors deliver not only the dialogue, but the narration and the characters' internal monologues, shifting gracefully in and out of British accents and idioms. Even the set, composed of oversized novels (accentuated by Phillip Koenig's expressive lighting), suggests that we are hovering on the edge of the fictional world.

Not all actors could be believable in this context, but the quartet performing this Carol are equal to the challenge. Mark Huismann creates a deeply sympathetic Marley. As the Bogle, Marley's impish spirit guide, the fantastic Erik J. Hughes is part Oxford wit, part demonic Tinkerbell. Matthew Winston is striking as a slew of characters from Bob Cratchit to the Angel of Death, and few full-scale productions of A Christmas Carol can boast a Scrooge as ideal as Jeff Knupp.

The production combines incisive observation with sincere faith in humankind. Dickens would be pleased.

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