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On Stage: ghost of a second chance

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For four years now Tom Mula has been Chicago's number-one Scrooge: star of the Goodman Theatre's annual holiday crowd pleaser, A Christmas Carol. But long before he tackled the role of the supreme skinflint, Mula played Scrooge's erstwhile business partner.

"I first did Christmas Carol at the age of 14," says Mula, "at the Little Theatre on the Square" in downstate Sullivan. "I played Marley in my friend Jim Allman's tire chains."

Jacob Marley's ghostly Christmas Eve appearance, dragging with him the bonds of bank locks and cash boxes, is one of the Dickens tale's most memorable sequences, of course. And it's Marley's visit that sets the tale in motion. Yet once the skeptical Scrooge is set on the road to reclamation, Marley's not heard from again; having worked for Scrooge's salvation, he doesn't win his own. And that always bothered Mula. So when Mula's friend director Terry McCabe brought his young daughter Hazel to see the Goodman show a couple of years ago, Mula was sympathetic to the girl's complaint: "Marley got a raw deal."

"These characters are very real to me," Mula says, "and I thought Hazel had a point. It stuck in my mind," and eventually took shape as the idea for a book that would explore Marley's adventures in the afterlife. Finally, this spring, "The book was ready to be born," Mula says. "So I turned down a handful of jobs and finished it in the fall."

The result is Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, a brand-new entry in the ever-burgeoning genre of holiday fiction. Written in a briskly descriptive style that suggests Dickens without imitating or parodying him, the novella starts with news of Marley's death--just as Dickens's book does--and leads up to Scrooge's transformation from covetous old sinner to champion of charity.

But Mula's version offers different explanations for the events of the story. Deposited after his death in a supernatural countinghouse and subjected to the ultimate audit, Marley finds his spiritual debit sheet far surpasses his credit balance where it counts: in helping other people. But if he can produce in his old partner Scrooge a "Total and Complete Change of Heart" ("said Change must be Willing and Irreversible," the divine contract states), then Marley too will have a chance at eternal happiness.

No task could seem more impossible. As hard-hearted as he is, Marley knows Scrooge is even worse; in fact, we learn, Scrooge's ruthless business schemings are what caused Marley's early demise. But he sets out on his heavenly work-release program in the company of a tiny tutelary spirit called a "bogle," a little-known creature of Celtic legend whose name survives in modern English's "bogeyman" and "boggle." The bogle--written as a sort of cross between Jiminy Cricket and Quentin Crisp--guides Marley in the use of magic to add pizzazz to his haunting of Scrooge: Marley's hellish appearance, we learn, is quite calculated for effect. When Scrooge proves even more obstinate than expected, Marley disguises himself as the Spirit of Christmas Past to take Scrooge on a flashback. But Marley hasn't bargained for a side effect: he sees his own past as well as Scrooge's, and it's not a pretty sight.

Mula's whimsical variations on Dickens's classic employ several familiar characters, including the jolly old businessman Fezziwig and the put-upon clerk Cratchit. ("Never liked him much," says Marley of Tiny Tim's dad. "No backbone. Works cheap, though.") It also acquaints us with new characters, among them Marley's drunken, distant father and the comic-grotesque inhabitants of a Dantean debtors' prison, and provides expansive descriptions of the crowded, squalid London of Dickens's day inspired by Gustave Dore's etchings.

A playwright as well as an actor--his stage writing credits include the musical Sylvia's Real Good Advice and The Golem, an adaptation of the Jewish legend--Mula admits that he initially felt uncomfortable in his first attempt at writing prose. "I was especially nervous about all the narration and exposition," he recalls. "I kept worrying that people would say, 'Why isn't anybody talking?' I had to keep reminding myself, 'It's OK, that's what fiction is.'"

Still, he's decided to launch his latest endeavor in the environment he's most accustomed to. On his night off from A Christmas Carol next week, he'll read his novella in the Goodman's 135-seat studio space. Well suited to a dramatic reading, with its strong, broadly drawn characters and visual imagery, the tale will be presented in a podium reading--rather like the ones Dickens gave.

The performance, which Mula estimates will run two hours with intermission, will benefit Season of Concern, the local theater industry's AIDS-support fund-raising project. It starts at 7:30 PM in the Goodman Theatre Studio, 200 S. Columbus; the suggested donation is $15. Call 443-3800 for reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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