STORY BY ANDERS BACK
For 21st-Century Media
Charles Dickens sat down at his desk, opened the top of his head and a whole cast of Victorian characters leapt out onto a sheet of foolscap, capturing English literature in a way no other writer’s work has done.
His novels are joyful and sinister, sunny and coal-dark, a noisy procession of people and events that makes readers feel they have opened a door to a huge surprise party. In the words of another prolific author, Joyce Carol Oates “His gift for portraiture is arguably as great as Shakespeare’s, and his versatility as a prose stylist is dazzling.”
It might seem impossible to bring to the stage a complete version of a Dickens’ novel, particularly one of his later, massive works such as Great Expectations. But that’s the book and the challenge that Minnesota playwright, director and text coach Gale Childs Daly took on, taking dozens of that novel’s characters, assigning their roles to just six actors on one set with minimal props that serves as 30 different locales in a work covering more than two decades.
Childs’ preoccupation with the language of Shakespeare and Dickens enriches and energizes her brilliant adaptation of Great Expectations, currently onstage at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia. Seeing her Dickensian derecho unfold on stage will impact audiences much as one of those massive straight-line windstorms; it’s an encompassing and sometimes overwhelming experience. But hanging in (and on) for the full two hours it takes for the orphan Pip Pirrip’s tale of Great Expectations to be told yields much more than just the satisfaction of getting through a theatrical Tough Mudder. As we follow Pip making his way in the world, meeting such legendary characters as Magwitch the convict, Pip’s brother-in-law Joe, the wildly eccentric Miss Havisham, Mr. Jaggers the lawyer and Mr. Wopsle the clerk and aspiring actor we are left with a better understanding of Dickens as fantasist.
His fantasy takes shape in the sudden appearances of characters long absent, the unexpected letter with life-changing contents, the whispered confidences that can’t be trusted, strange lives played out behind closed doors; all Dickens’ plots have strong elements of fantasy. Well-grounded in historic old England or revolutionary France, there was still in his novels as in this play a hint of sorcery in the settings he created, of anarchy just behind the eyes of good and bad alike, For just as Dickens’ vision of the life of the poor was explicit and grim, so his observations of the well-off and wealthy saw with prescience the futility of those who devote their affluence to self-centered pleasures.
As Pip observed when his fortunes, clothes, lodgings and friends suddenly changed, “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition.”
British novelist Martin Amis, a contemporary writer often compared with Dickens, noted in a recent interview “Dickens is a much misunderstood and mis-approached writer, in that he tends to be read, particularly in the twentieth century, as a social commentator—a realist in his way. But he isn’t at all like that. His genre is actually more like a fairy tale—weird transformations, long voyages from which people come back altered, parental mysteries, semi-magical twists.”
Director Matthew Decker, Arden’s associate artistic director and resident director of Theater Horizon, has chosen to emphasize the fantasy on a living-room-sized set where there is nowhere to hide. Props come and go, trunks transform into carriages and boats, books and papers fly through the air, actors turn into inanimate objects and then return as key characters of both sexes, and there are more costume changes than a Cher concert.
Decker has assembled a fine cast of local actors and managed to keep them moving on cue as quickly and efficiently as local British Rail trains, but without collisions. This is no small feat. Josh Carpenter as Pip is the only actor who remains in character throughout. It’s no holiday, as he is in nearly every scene. He succeeds in personifying youthful eagerness and hesitation while concealing his expectations for life, and for the cold and beautiful Estella played with exquisite hauteur by Kate Czajkowski.
Sally Mercer of Pottstown is a forbidding and yet ethereal Miss Havisham, sewn into her past as tightly as the wedding dress she always wears. Doug Hara of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater Company is a diminutive dynamo shooting across (and above) the stage as the thwarted thespian Mr. Wopsle, as Pip’s friend Herbert and many other roles, Lindsay Smiling who will be remembered by local theatergoers from his performance in Beautiful Boy at People’s Light and Theater Company is a solid and sober Joe, embodying decency and struggling with Pip’s change in status but just as quickly morphing into a sneering dandy as he plays the loathsome upperclass twit Bentley Drummle. The power of money and class hover over Dickens’ work like a cloud of steam and coal fumes.
“The strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.” George Orwell wrote of Dickens, “but the central problem–how to prevent power from being abused–remains unsolved.”
Great Expectations runs until Dec. 21 at the Arden Theater Company, 40 N. Second St., Philadelphia. For tickets call (215) 922-1122 or visit www.ardentheater.org