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Everyman stages streamlined, well-cast, atmospheric 'Great Expectations'

The set desginer for Dickens' "Great Expectations" at Everyman Theatre talks about the set for the show. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Only Charles Dickens could send his characters careening through a veritable collision course of coincidences and make all of it seem perfectly plausible and inevitable, not to mention entertaining. He did so with particular flair in "Great Expectations," the novel that has come bounding impressively onto the stage at Everyman Theatre via an adaptation made a few years ago by Gale Childs Daly.

This version compresses something like 180,000 words into a play lasting about two-and-a-half hours (including intermission), and assigns all the roles to six actors.

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Folks who believe Dickens should be read and not seen may be particularly disappointed, if only because so much text has been discarded, so much atmosphere condensed.

For me, the most significant shortage is character depth. There simply isn't enough time to ensure a fully formed portrait of the protagonist, Pip, as his life unfolds from a pivotal childhood encounter with an escaped convict on through the first blush of young love and the slow awakening to what's most important in life.

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Likewise, the object of Pip's affection — the elusive Estella, adopted daughter of the wonderfully peculiar Miss Havisham — is a partly filled in presence. So it's a little harder to feel as invested in the emotional pull of the plot.

That said, Daly encapsulates the essence of "Great Expectations" in a viable theatrical structure built on narration by the players (a little too often in unison).

Clearly, the trick with this piece is to fill it with lots of good old-fashioned acting — burrowing into a text, creating colorful personalities, conveying much more than what's in the script. That's just the kind of cast Everyman has assembled, along with the insightful Tazewell Thompson to guide the performers.

You can count on this director to draw you all the way into a story by ensuring that the humanity of the characters on stage can be felt. And he knows how to keep things natural, a particularly helpful gift when dealing with a work that could easily turn into an extended theatrical trick.

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Thompson brings great nuance, as well as flow, to Pip's journey through country and town, aided at every turn by Yu-Hsuan Chen's clever, capacious set design and David Burdick's expert costumes. At key points, lighting (Stephen Quandt) and sound design (Fabian Obispo) intensify the sensory appeal — the striking Act 1 curtain is a major case in point.

Drew Kopas provides a strong anchor for the production as Pip. He's persuasive as the young fellow who finds himself forever at the mercy of physically threatening grown-ups (they're a literally slap-happy lot). And Kopas is just as effective with Pip's transition to adulthood.

The other five players divvy up all the other characters, distinguishing them quite successfully via voice and gesture.

Bruce Randolph Nelson tackles his transformations with his usual vitality, getting particular mileage out of Magwitch, the felon with a heart. (Note how nicely Nelson milks humor out of the simple, oft-repeated phrase "Pip's comrade.")

Franchelle Stewart Dorn makes a meal out of every assignment. Highlights include her ferocious braying as Pip's sister and, especially, her beautifully layered, rich-voiced performance as manipulative Miss Havisham. Elizabeth Anne Jernigan gives Estella sufficient color and serves her other assignments well.

Among his several winning portrayals, Brit Herring is a perfect Joe, Pip's brother-in-law; you never for a moment doubt the character's goodness and genuineness, qualities that Pip eventually appreciates. And Gerrad Alex Taylor, a resident member of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, does assured, vibrant work in his Everyman debut.

The cast seizes on the play's humor with particular relish, nowhere more rewardingly than in the depiction of a rotten performance of "Hamlet" that Pip attends. Note, too, the droll vocalizing of Handel's keyboard piece nicknamed "The Harmonious Blacksmith."

All in all, this brisk, flavorful venture more than meets expectations.

If you go

"Great Expectations" runs through March 5 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $64. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.

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