Like many American traditions associated with the holiday season, theatrical productions of Charles Dickens’ beloved novella A Christmas Carol tend to arrive wrapped in treacly sentiment. Dickens was an unsurpassed master at the art of plucking tender heartstrings, but he was also a caustic social critic. More than a celebration of the Christmas spirit, the 1847 work was a cri de coeur about the abject conditions in which so many Britons scraped by in the aftermath of the industrial revolution.
San Francisco Mime Troupe’s A Red Carol transports Dickens’ tale from early Victorian Era-London to a present day American city, but it also harkens back to themes from the novella often overlooked in traditional retellings. Premiering on Dec. 11, the production is part of a series of free radio pieces that have kept the Mission District’s Tony Award-winning ensemble busy during the pandemic.
Written and directed by Michael Gene Sullivan, a member of the SF Mime Troupe collective for some three decades, A Red Carol was conceived amid a movement protesting rising economic inequality. Sullivan first presented the work at Occupy Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza encampment on Christmas Eve in 2011, determined “to return A Christmas Carol to the people, to reclaim Charles Dickens as an activist,” he said.
The postmodern musical is a play within a play that refurbishes old labor songs as vehicles to tell the story of the homeless Cratchit Family, the miserly investment banker Ebenezer Scrooge, and his visitation by an assortment of Christmas ghosts. A brief British run at the Open Door Theatre in Sheffield garnered international attention for Sullivan’s reimagined Carol.
Despite enthusiastic responses from theatrical colleagues, “progressive theaters around the country don’t want to touch it,” he said. “They say, ‘That’s what the big theaters do,’ and the big theaters already all have their ‘Christmas Carol’ productions.”
Indeed, Sullivan started thinking about creating his own version of the Dickens story in the 1990s, when he was regularly cast in American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol, playing Fred, Scrooge’s kindly nephew and sole living relative, and various Christmas Ghosts. While discussing the play one evening with the artistic director of another prominent San Francisco theater, Sullivan was taken aback when he asserted that Dickens “was apolitical and that he wasn’t trying to write an activist story,” he recalled.
“I went back and reread the book, and I could see all the places where they’d taken out the harshly political things that Dickens wrote. One speech that I put in Red Carol has the Ghost of Christmas Present showing Scrooge people all around the world sharing a sense of brotherhood. Scrooge says, ‘You’re lying. You make these people’s lives worse. All the rest of the year, your ministers and priests say the way to salvation is through suffering.’ That part is cut out of every production.”
With musical direction by Daniel Savio and a score performed by Savio on piano and keyboards, drummer David Rokeach and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Byers, “A Red Carol” features many of the Mime Troupe’s regulars who’ve performed in the company’s 10-part radio serial “Tales of the Resistance.” The 10-person cast includes Keiko Shimosato-Carreiro and Wilma Bonet as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively, and Sullivan himself as Bob Crachit. Milo Carter-Daniels portrays Tiny Tim, and Sullivan recruited a longtime friend, veteran Hollywood character actor Mike McShane, as Scrooge.
For the Los Angeles-based McShane, who played the doomed hypnotherapist in Mike Judge’s prescient 1999 cult film Office Space, collaborating with the Mime Troupe completes a career circle. As a young actor living at 21st and Guerrero streets in the mid-1980s, he shared a house with theater people like San Francisco Shakespeare Festival founder Bobby Winston that served as party central for the Bay Area theater scene.
“I’m so happy to be doing this show,” McShane said. “The Mime Troupe meant a lot to me. When I first moved to the Bay Area in 1980, I’d go see Barry Shabaka Henley all the time as Factwino,” an alcoholic superhero character who starred in numerous Mime Troupe productions.
Casting McShane as Scrooge gives the plum role to a charismatic special guest, but A Red Carol seeks to knock the stone-hearted villain off his evil pedestal. More than anything, Sullivan aims to upend a morality tale about saving one man’s withered soul by spotlighting the power of collective action.
“It always ends up being about Scrooge,” he said. “The world’s a fine, fine place and if Scrooge changes, everything will be fine. When you make it about Scrooge, it lets the audience off the hook. He represents the society that accepts this stuff.”
Designed to be reposted online every December, A Red Carol offers a radical alternative to traditional to traditional holiday fare like The Nutcracker and The Velveteen Rabbit. It’s a clarion call to action, McShane said, as Bob Cratchit tells his Scrooge, “It’s not about you, about one guy. This Isn’t about how you feel. We need to restructure things. We all have to take action.”