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A very Dickens review of 'A Christmas Carol' at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura

A very Dickens review of 'A Christmas Carol' at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura
Tormented Marley (Joe Spano, center) terrorizes a cowering Scrooge (Peter Van Norden, lower right) amid an ensemble of spirit narrators. (Zachary Andrews)

Having been more or less inundated, year after year, for good or ill, by the surplus of yuletide theatrical stagings of "A Christmas Carol," that most ubiquitous of the literary creations of Charles Dickens, even the most jaded of audience members may well find themselves pleasurably surprised by the Rubicon Theatre's literate new version, owing in part to the scrupulous textual fidelity shown by its adapter, Karyl Lynn Burns, to the source novella, notwithstanding the challenge of dramatically rendering its Dickensian propensity for intricately constructed albeit long-winded sentences — much like this one.

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Indeed, the direction by Brian McDonald makes a virtue of the aforesaid Dickens grandiloquence by incorporating techniques popularized by the Book-It Repertory Theatre of Seattle -- to wit, the allocation of recited narrative as well as dialogue among the excellent 24-member cast to better illuminate their characters' back stories, perspectives and interior states. In this regard the lion's share of the work falls to Peter Van Norden as the archetypal miser Ebenezer Scrooge and Joe Spano as his deceased partner, Jacob Marley. The virtuoso performances from both might, during the introductory scenes, strike the viewer as effortless, and even humorous.

Such light-hearted assumptions are quickly dispelled, however, by the affable Spano's harrowing transformation into Marley's tormented ghost, a foretaste of the possible afterlife awaiting Scrooge as they begin their Dante-esque voyage of damnation and redemption through the stratified Victorian society, whose frayed safety net unsettles with timely resonance. For his part, Van Norden offers nuanced insight into the origins of loneliness and poverty that shaped Scrooge, and an affecting transformation of his own in portraying the reclamation of human warmth, fortuitously in time for a merry Christmas repast.

"A Christmas Carol," Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 20. $30-$64. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours.

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