Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” specifically to model a different form of society, asserts San Francisco Mime Troupe resident playwright and director Michael Gene Sullivan, who, a decade ago, adapted the 1843 novella as a stage play.
His adaptation, called “A Red Carol,” has since received one production, in a small theater in England.
Now Sullivan has reimagined it as a radio play for the pandemic era, retaining the Mime Troupe’s signature style — a lively mix of comedy, musical numbers (Daniel Savio is musical director) and broad characterizations — and the Troupe’s socially progressive agenda.
Told from the point of view of Bob Cratchit, the humble clerk in miserly Ebenezer Scrooge’s “counting house”—“That’s what they called banks in them days,” Cratchit, the narrator (played by Sullivan), explains in an aside to the audience — the play is voiced by 10 performers including Mime Troupe regulars Keiko Shimosato-Carreiro, Amos Glick, Wilma Bonet and Velina Brown and other notables such as Jarion Monroe and Mike McShane.
Together, they portray the memorable characters: Mr. Fezziwig; Scrooge’s sunny nephew, Fred; Tiny Tim; and of course Scrooge himself; as well as the chain-rattling Marley and the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. (The silent Christmas Yet to Come will no doubt be represented by appropriately hollow sound effects.)
Although the beloved story — seen over the years in various forms, such as a Western, a zombie version, ballets, stage renditions such as American Conservatory Theater’s and more— remains intact, the Mime Troupe views it as less a story of one stingy geezer’s ultimate redemption and more a pointed social commentary that, sadly, is apropos for our times.
“The idea of personal philanthropy goes back to this book,” says Sullivan. In Dickens’ era, he points out, only the rarest benefactor routinely gave money to the poor, even as unemployment and starvation plagued Europe. As Scrooge famously snarls, when asked to donate to a Christmas Eve charity, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
Adds Sullivan, “For Dickens’ world, Scrooge is normal”; from the perspective of the Mime Troupe, which was founded by R.G. Davis in 1959, we are returning to a pre-Dickensian world in which children are starving in the streets and empathy is lost.
In writing “A Red Carol,” Sullivan was determined to de-romanticize a world that other productions have emphasized. He repurposed hymns and old labor songs by adding new lyrics. “Are you cold, forlorn and hungry?/Are you living in a shack?/Is your life made up of mis’ry? … Then dump the bosses off yer back!” goes one.
In reshaping the script for an audio recording, Sullivan restructured some lines, having learned new techniques while working on the Mime Troupe’s COVID-era radio play, the multi-episode “Tales of Resistance,” which can be heard on the company’s website.
“When I write, I write for visuals,” he says. “Now all I have is sound. I can say there’s wind, or a gunshot, but aside from that, everything has to be conveyed in words. I can cut out the parts that are very visual and replace them with radio drama tropes: sounds of isolation [etc.], but colors, costumes, set, gestures— all that happens in the listeners’ minds. This is a fireside chat, a ghost story told on radio.”
For the play’s villain, Sullivan cast veteran actor Mike McShane: “He understands where the comedy and the cruelty is.” McShane, based in Los Angeles, was formerly a Bay Area performer and appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Present in an ACT production.
Inhabiting Scrooge with the Mime Troupe, and being back in the Bay Area if only virtually, is sheer delight, he says. His favorite Scrooge, he notes, is Alastair Sim of the 1951 British film version.
“A Red Carol,” with its workers’ ethos and Mime Troupe-style satirical humor, is likely to prompt more laughter than Dickens’ sentimental original. But, says, Sullivan, “Dickens believed if you tell a story too harshly, the audience will feel bad about everything. If the Mime Troupe performs without comedy, the audience will kill itself … and we’ll get no word of mouth!”
More seriously, he adds, “You want the audience to feel there’s something they can do.” To incite activism: That’s the Troupe’s goal with every show they’ve produced. At the end of “A Red Carol,” Scrooge is contemplating reopening the “counting house” … as a credit union.
IF YOU LISTEN
A Red Carol
Presented by San Francisco Mime Troupe
Where: sfmt.org, KALW 91.7 FM
When: Dec. 11-Jan. 17
Tickets: Free, $20 suggested donation
Contact: (415) 285-1717, sfmt.org