Back Stage West - November 20-26, 2003

Critic's Pick

Marley's Ghost

Reviewed By Travis Michael Holder

" Marley's Ghost"

Theater: Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Location: 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
Phone: (323) 461-6069.
Starts: November 14, 2003
Ends: December 20, 2003
Evenings: Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.
Price: $20
Presented by: Circle X Theatre Company

In the tradition of Tamara performed at an American Legion hall and Romeo & Juliet driving classic convertibles through a studio backlot, Circle X Theatre Company redefines its cutting-edge reputation with this unique environmental presentation. Displaying the same innovative vitality that has put the troupe on the L.A. theatrical map in breakneck time since its 1996 debut, Circle X offers Jeff Goode's bizarre take on A Christmas Carol--and a Dickens of an update it is.

Goode sets his tale seven years before Ebenezer ever faced that notorious trio of visiting specters, starting with the death of his ever-clanking partner Jacob Marley. We are taken from that point through Marley's celestial trial for his misdeeds, culminating where the original story begins. This time, however, we see things from Marley's perspective, including the hiring of his nephew Bob Cratchitt (who knew?) and news of sly old Jacob's secret and prolonged shtupping of Mrs. Fezziwig. The often tongue-in-cheek/often poignant slant on the holiday classic is itself enough to make this an annual event, but Circle X has enhanced Marley's journey further by placing the piece smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

There is something eerie about walking through the graveyard at night past the elaborate resting places of some of Hollywood's most famous Golden Era elite, alongside several newly raised mounds of earth smothered in still-fresh flowers. On the rainy opening night, one still unburied casket covered with a tarp sat ominously unattended along the path. Mixing creepy reality with an exhilarating inkling of what's to come, solitary Victorian-ragged cast members chant Christmas carols in the candlelit entrances of austere early 20th century sepulchers throughout the trek from the Gower Gate to the crossroads between Harry Cohn and Nelson Eddy--the spot where Marley (Keythe Farley) lies on the cold ground awaiting burial.

In the first use of this celebrity potter's field as a place to create theatre, Circle X brings all its collective imagination to the task. Observers are ushered from scene to scene as spirits move stealthily through the shadows behind gravestones, and an unseen gaggle of Circle X members prove they could have careers voicing the howls of feral dogs. Assigned to convince Marley he's really dead, a mute slapstick phantom (a hilarious Richard Augustine) leads him to a celestial tribunal where he will be sentenced for his dastardly deeds. The audience is ushered along into the facility's majestic 1899 mausoleum, where massive marble statues of saints seem to show displeasure at the intrusion. As we are seated next to the crypt of Rudolph Valentino, the hearing commences, governed by a 20-foot Christmas tree-shaped magistrate (Johanna McKay), whose hand motions are accomplished in unison by two actors attached to her towering body by long tubes.

There is a new artistic leadership at Circle X, and the change is immediately obvious. Gone is the somewhat pretentious we-can-do-anything attitude fueled by several years of perhaps too-rapid success, replaced by what the company originally stood for: to bring bold and provocative theatre to our sometimes culturally challenged reclaimed desert city, fueled by raw talent and barebones invention over budget and the safety of Neil Simon.