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Great Expectations

a Drama
CATEGORY : DRAMA
by adapted from Dickens' novel by Barbara Field

COMPANY : Georgia Ensemble Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Roswell Cultural Arts Center
ID# 2708

SHOWING : February 21, 2008 - March 09, 2008

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Dickens' epic coming-of-age story is told with magic and warmth in this richly theatrical retelling for a contemporary audience. Young and old alike will be swept away by the classic tory of Pip, Magwitch, Estella and Miss Havisham as we travel with them in this tale filled with compassion and humanity.


CAST & CREW LIST
Director Robert Farley
Barmaid / Clara Olivia Aston
Pumblechook/Wemmick/Drummle James Baskin
Jaggers J. Michael Carroll
Soldier/Stableboy/Clergyman Ryan Everett
Estella Dori Garziano
Compeyson Matt Judd
Miss Skiffins Rebecca Kling
Lt./Tailor/Dr./Porter Matthew Lewis
Lt./Tailor/Dr./Porter Matt Lewis
Magwitch Harrison Long
Herbert Pocket Chad Martin
Pip Chris Moses
Mrs. Joe / Molly Mary Emily O'Bradovich
Joe Gargery / Aged Parent Winslow Thomas
Biddy Meredith Woolard
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production
REVIEWS

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When Expectations Become Too Great
by Dedalus
Sunday, March 16, 2008
3.0
After the RSC’s 1982 12-Hour Marathon “Nicholas Nickleby” became a smash hit in London and New York, Dickens suddenly became a Hot Property. Faster than you can say “It was the best of times,” we saw stage (and screen) adaptations of “Hard Times,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Little Dorritt,” “David Copperfield,” and “Bleak House.” One of the most successful was the Barbara Fields’ take on “Great Expectations,” adapted in 1983 for the Guthrie Theatre and the Seattle Children’s Theatre.

I saw a wonderful production of this in Philadelphia by the touring Guthrie Theatre in 1986, then designed sound for one in Harrisburg PA a few years later.

When I saw that Georgia Ensemble Theatre was planning a mounting of this adaptation, my Expectations went through the roof. In fact, I can honestly say I began volunteering at GET in anticipation of seeing this show.

And, when I say that I was disappointed in the result, I can probably say that it was more a result of my elevated expectations than of anything I saw on stage itself.

Or was it?

When I say that GET mounted an Equity production that came across like a community theatre production, while my experience in Harrisburg was a Community Theatre Production(**) that came across like an Equity Production, I can probably dismiss the comparison of a too-rosy memory coupled by a too- selective comparison of choices and designs.

Or can I?

And, when I dismiss the choices made by the actors and production team at Roswell as “not up to the standard” set by the Guthrie Touring company and the Harrisburg experience, I’m probably being unfair, and letting my own “Great Expectations” blind me to the skills and choices actually on display in Roswell.

Or am I?

To summarize, Ms. Fields’ adaptation follows the “Nicholas Nickleby” model – actors drop into and out of characters, sharing Narration duties so that Dickens’ storytelling sense is left intact. Scenes flow fluidly from one to another with a twist of shoulder, a flash of wig, and a preset wagon pushed by in-character stagehands. Sound effects are often produced by on-stage narrators with a bang, a flash, a clap. The technique owes as much to 19th-Century stagecraft as it does to Directorial Creativity.

The story is familiar to anyone who encountered Dickens in High School or College (it is one of his shorter novels, so it is often used in basic literature courses). Pip is a young orphan being raised by his cruel sister and her kindly blacksmith husband. A frightening encounter with an escaped convict is followed in short order by an assignment to “play with” the ward of an eccentric lady living in a neglected manse. As the years add up, it becomes known that young Pip has “Great Expectations,” that “someone who wishes to remain anonymous” is sponsoring his entry into the aristocracy, is, in fact, making it possible for him to become a Gentlemen. Pip grows to adulthood, uncovers the real stories behind his benefactor, his encounter with the convict, the eccentric lady, and the girl he has loved since childhood, which, in true Dickensian fashion, are all connected. (Someone, who shall remain uncited once summarized the plot like this: ("Pip Yearns. Magwitch Earns. Estella Spurns. Havisham Burns.")

This show is an actor’s delight, with everyone (except Pip) doubling roles, all of which are eccentric and memorable. Accents follow thicker than Dickensian coincidence, and story-telling technique becomes a must, since everyone gets a turn at the narration.

The first thing I noticed about GET’s production is that the scenes didn’t flow all that well together. The set is a unit set, but spots are “reserved” for specific scenes – The Gargery Smithy is in front of the stage (almost in the audience’s lap), Miss Havisham’s hermitage is in the raised area upstage, etc etc etc. While I can understand this choice, its effect is to impose an “order” that actually impedes the flow of the story. We occasionally see black-clad stagehands, and, at one point, I mistook a badly lit lurking villain for another. (BTW, to digress, I always thought the villain was COMPeyson, not ComPEYson. I could be wrong.)

The set itself looks like nothing in particular other than scaffolding and free-standing flats. In both productions I encountered earlier, the unit sets were disordered, but “collage” effective -- they reflected a certain unity in the story, suggesting, by their very vagueness, the real settings being made in our minds by the storytellers. The set at GET never brought to mind the scenes, either by suggestion or by implication. It just looked incomplete.

The second thing I noticed at GET was the lack of specificity in the various characters. Doubled characters looked alike, sounded alike, and, to be honest, were sometimes difficult to differentiate. I do have to praise Winslow Thomas’s Joe Gargery, who captured the character’s nobility and honesty (not to mention his affection for Pip), but I found his “Aged Parent” more suggestive of Actor Schtick than of Character Eccentricity. As to everyone else, more attention to costume, dialect, and wigs (not to mention real eccentricity) would have gone a long way to making the characters come more alive for me.

Third, in both productions I’d seen before, a highly theatrical effect of a large ship bearing down on the audience was used to highlight the climax in the River. Admittedly, it is not specifically scripted as such, but not seeing it here made the scene fall a little flat for me.

Finally, the biggest problem I had with this production was the monochromatic mood. This is a large, sprawling story, and scenes run the gamut from slapstick to passionate to over-the-top emotional to quietly ruminative to pastoral. Yet, the mood and pace remained within a small range. The lighting was consistently white (apart from a few low-angle firelight cues), the sound effects absent (no on-stage door-knocking here), the music rare (I especially missed not hearing Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith” which is referred to constantly in the text). There was no underscoring, no “ambient sound” – pastoral birds, London clip-clops, for example. Admittedly, since I designed the sound in Harrisburg (for the record, over sixty cues), my Expectations are probably impossibly high here. But, the effect was to render the entire thing a “classroom experience,” a dull “lesson” causing more than one glance at my watch. And, because I don’t trust my memory, I came home and watched my tape of the Harrisburg production. Even after more than twenty years, it was gripping, moving, funny – everything I wanted GET’s production to be – and I couldn’t turn it off. It was like the difference between hearing a song with a range of eight notes, and one with a range of three octaves.

All this being said, I still love the story, and it still has its own great charm. Chris Moses made a fine (if blander than expected) Pip, Joanna Daniel did her typically wonderful job as Miss Havisham, and Dori Garziano was a pleasantly cold Estella. The pace was kept lively (if unvaried), and Dickens’ words have not lost their beauty or their power.

But I Expected Greatness, and I was Granted so much less.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


** For the record, at the time, Harrisburg’s Artistic Director, Technical Director, and Costumer were full-time Professionals, but the Actors were not.

Another Postscript – I do a lot of statistical analyses in my Day Job, and want to toss these numbers out. The script has speaking roles for 24 Characters. The original Seattle production used 15 Actors, the touring Guthrie Production in Philadelphia used 11, the Harrisburg Production used 12, and GET used 15. This probably means nothing, and I only bring it up because I like statistical comparisons. What Larks!



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