Smith Street Stage gives “A Christmas Carol” the radio treatment

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Members of the Smith Street Stage perform Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as a radio play in Carroll Park. (Photo by Chris Montgomery Photography)
Members of the Smith Street Stage perform Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as a radio play in Carroll Park.

If you closed your eyes for a moment, you were transported into the world of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic A Christmas Carol, relying on only your ears to guide your imagination.

The Smith Street Stage’s production of A Christmas Carol was like no other, bringing its small audience into the 1930s and recreating an entire story in the form of a radio play.

The cast performs and prepares their lines in the radio play performance of "A Christmas Carol."

Audiences were encouraged to watch seven actors bring to life 34 characters, using a myriad of props and tools to create the soundscape of Dickens’ world, but also to listen and “experience the show as a 1938 audience would have,” according to director Beth Ann Hopkins. “I was inspired by my grandfather, Herbert C. Rice—he was a radio man.”

As the audience sat in the small, intimate room and enjoyed the sound of jazz music and the pervading smell of incense, the seven actors—dressed in 1930s apparel—walked into the room, removed their coats and began shaking each other’s hands and talking with each other, creating the illusion that they were actors for a 1938 radio station coming in for a day of work.  “I modeled it after Orson Welles’ Theater,” Hopkins explained. “Each actor came in as a person [from the 1930s radio].”

After a brief exchange in mutable dialogue among the actors, Stage Manager Jordan Coffey approached a faux-1930s microphone and welcomed audiences to the “Fourth Annual Radio Performance” of A Christmas Carol. The seven actors subsequently dispersed through the small room, preparing to make sounds using the arsenal of props laid out before them.

Charlie Kravits as Tiny Tim in Smith Street Stage's "A Christmas Carol."

“My real goal was to have the actors make the sounds,” Hopkins explained. “As an actress, I would have wanted to make the sounds. I’ve always been obsessed with sound—collecting trinkets that made noise ever since I was a little girl.”

The play opened up on Christmas Eve, as actors created the illusion of footsteps by sticking their hands in shoes and clattering them on a small, wooden board. After Ebenezer Scrooge (played by the inimitable Patrick McCarthy) vehemently rejects his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner and refuses a donation to two men hoping to pay for Christmas dinner for the poor (the sound of donation cans were created by the clanking of metal chains against the wooden platform and the shaking of coins in a can), he is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who urges him to change his ways.

Perhaps one of the most creative and intriguing parts of the performance was the three actors (Jonathan Hopkins, Pete McElliot, and Sam Rosenberg) who created the sound of a Marley’s ghost. The three actors spoke in perfect unison, harmonizing the timbre of their voices to create one loud, haunting voice. Although the actors had the luxury of reading off of a script, the portrayal of Jacob Marley’s ghost demonstrated great practice, skill, collaboration and talent. “They came with their own creativity and ideas,” Hopkins said with regard to all seven actors. “I had a vision, but it’s made clear by the actors that it’s not just one person building a show; it’s eight people.”

Jessica Lane Weiss was Belle and other characters in Smith Street Stage's "A Christmas Carol."

The most difficult part of being an audience member was deciding whether to watch or listen to this production, which hinged on the dichotomy between visual and auditory entertainment. It was unquestionably fascinating to watch as actors created a world through sound—from gently tapping crystal glasses to represent the sound of a clock tolling, to tapping a small, plastic rock with a tiny hammer to create the illusion of a farmer cutting down a tree several feet away.

On the other hand, only when you closed your eyes could you experience the performance as a 1938 radio listener would have. To sit in the audience was to constantly shift among worlds: the world of the characters in A Christmas Carol, the world of the actors portraying 1938 radio broadcasters, the world of a 1938 audience, and the world of a present day audience.

And, despite the concept of the radio play, actors still had realistic facial expressions to complement their crisp inflections. Given the small size of the room, it often felt as if you were standing right next to heartbreaking Tiny Tim (portrayed by the multi-talented Charlie Kravits).

Actresses Jessica Lane Weiss (Belle and others) and Susanna Baddiel (Ghost of Christmas Past and others) were remarkably believable as their facial expressions, gestures, and inflections made the audience feel as if they were watching a stage play.

The Smith Street Stage’s production of A Christmas Carol was an evident result of teamwork, talent and determination. “We work-shopped it two years ago in The Living Room in the Lower East Side,” recalled Hopkins. “They’ve made it bigger than I could have ever imagined.”

The production runs this weekend in Carroll Park’s Robert Acito Park House, December 14th (7 p.m.), December 15th, (5 p.m. and 7 p.m.), and December 16th (5 p.m.). To find out more about this fantastically unique production, log on to www.smithstreetstage.org.

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