“I wear the chains I forged in life,” thunders the ghost of Jacob Marley, dead these seven years and risen from the depths of hell.
“I made them. Link by link and yard by yard.”
Good thing most of them are made of plastic. Because metal would get awfully heavy.
Marley’s ghost, aka actor Victor Raider-Wexler, has plenty of such stage tricks up his Victorian sleeves for this 36th annual production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
Marley, the late business partner of fellow miser Ebenezer Scrooge, is on stage for all of four minutes, but his role in Charles Dickens’ classic tale is huge. Against the wishes of the demons below, Marley returns to Earth (via the Rep’s handy elevator up through a trap door) to warn Scrooge of the error of his ways and foretell the three Christmas spirits who will lead the old man down the path of redemption.
“It seems to me it’s an abundantly good story for Christmastime,” says Raider-Wexler, seated at his dressing room mirror before a rehearsal the other day.
Over his long career, Raider-Wexler has been a part of many good stories on and off-Broadway, in movies such as “Minority Report” and “The Pursuit of Happyness” and in several guest roles on sitcoms. With his commanding voice, he often played doctors: Dr. Gold on “Seinfeld,” explaining how glue on wedding invitation envelopes killed George’s fiancee; Dr. Carlin on “Friends,” treating Ross for an allergic reaction to kiwi.
He moved to Kansas City in 2007, following his wife, who was studying psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The marriage didn’t last, but he and the kids loved the area and stayed. Raider-Wexler considered himself retired, but the Kansas City theater scene thought otherwise and gave him steady work. This is his first go at the Rep’s “Christmas Carol.”
Last year, Marley was played by Walter Coppage, who this season shares Raider-Wexler’s dressing room and is now young Scrooge’s ebullient boss, Fezziwig.
Before that, Marley was Mark Robbins, who now plays Dickens, the sonorous narrator. Back when he was the ghost, Robbins — more of a Method actor, says Raider-Wexler — insisted on metal chains, 60 pounds of them, to feel the full weight, as it were, of Marley’s fate.
Raider-Wexler finds other methods to get into character. Following a sketch from a Rep costume designer, he does his own makeup, which he learned studying theater at the University of Toledo, his hometown.
He starts with Clown White as a foundation, then dabs on what makeup company Ben Nye creatively calls Death Flesh. Next, for his cheeks and sides of his forehead, Cadaver Grey — “It gives a gaunt face” — followed by touches of Sallow Green.
To bring out the eyes, in horrible ways, he uses Fresh Cut, a bright red. Then blotches of Maroon all over to create creases.
Does that age him?
“Seven years under the ground aged,” Raider-Wexler answers, half-jokingly.
After all, he points out, the first line of the play, uttered by Dickens, is this: “Marley was dead. There is no doubt whatever about that.” So he’d better look the part.
But Raider-Wexler doesn’t have to suffer for his art. Hence the light plastic chains wrapped around his tattered coat and vest. (He does carry a heavy, metal hardware store chain to rattle menacingly at Scrooge.) Under his patchwork pants Raider-Wexler wears kneepads for the scenes where he kneels in apparent agony.
Scrooge, played by Gary Neal Johnson — “as close a friend as I have in town,” Raider-Wexler says — wears kneepads for that scene too. Smart men.
Completing the look: a wig of stringy hair, which a dresser for the Rep attaches along the back of Raider-Wexler’s head.
And voila: death warmed over.
Raider-Wexler likes the part and the play. In Act II, he ditches the scary makeup and becomes a happy caroler in the ensemble — he’s the dapper gentleman in a top hat and red scarf.
Through all the roles he’s played over all these years, he says the biggest lesson he’s learned, the one he always reminds himself about, is this:
“I’m just grateful for so many things.”
Dickens would be proud.
“A Christmas Carol” continues through Dec. 24 at Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. See kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.