First and foremost: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens is a very, very long novel and play, and is filled with some difficult Dickensian language, numerous plot twists, and expostions. Thankfully, Lumina Studo Theatre’s ambitious production was sheared down from the original eight and a half hour Broadway incarnation to three and a half hours. I saw the ‘Blue Cast’ perform on Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 2 PM.
With over one hundred characters performed by fifty three actors (and that’s not including the near complete second cast), the Lumina ensemble worked with notable cohesion, with cast members ages ranging eight to sixteen, not including the six adult players. This huge cast provided ample means to transition between scenes using literary-style narration that every character takes part in at one point in the show.
I do question David Minton’s direction, because for me, there seemed to be a disconnect between some of the source material and some of the aspects of the show, from the acting style to the various technical designs. While there surely are comedic and frankly slapstick moments indicated in the text, the tone of the production seemed to be muddled by the farcical stylizations employed by many cast members, which were made even more out of place by the intimate black box setting.It would often seem as if performers were just trying out silly voices or messing around with cheap gags instead of earnestly portraying their characters while letting the comedy emerge naturally. The play itself is too dramatic to justify this choice of stylistic interpretation, and some nudging towards more true-to-life portrayals by the young actors would have been much appreciated.
That being said, Director Minton did find several ways to cleverly stage this epic tale of social criticism. He utilized the youngest members of the cast in an adorable ensemble of orphans, whose bits of unison narration were always understandable. While the pace dragged throughout the show, individualized characterizations thankfully prevented the whole production from becoming one giant blur. Minton also employed some elements of blatant theatricality, with an ensemble member sprinkling snow from atop the rafters substituting a storm, or seemingly random character banging a log against the platform making a door knock sound effect (this choice was particularly confusing because the characters who were doing the knocking would often be in contact with a perfectly fine door frame themselves). The scenes that depicted poverty seemed suitably grimy as Minton set the paupers crawling in the shadows or hiding in crevices of the scenery.
Jim Porter’s set design had a number of problems. The main structures, which included two staircases, two erect and empty door frames, and a swinging fence gate, were all painted an off-shade of brown that failed to neutralize their appearance, as their designs would suggest they would want to be, leaving them feeling sparse and unfinished. The door frames and fence seemed out of place and had little purpose other than providing and unnecessary portal to enter and exit from.
One of the more positive aspects of the scenery was the backdrop, which displayed an arch detailed with what appeared to be sketches and paintings that could have been taken out of the novel’s pages, filled in with an oddly neon colored yet appropriately textured netting that would let the radiant colors of the cyclorama shine through.
Alec Lawson’s lighting design was another highlight. Creative uses of gobo effects and tight effusions distinctly indicated time and location, even at one point creating a horse drawn carriage using a simple box of light around the actors. Several specials gave stark illumination to some ghastly scenes, including an unexpected hanging and a sentimental scene of loss. Nonetheless, quite a few color choices seemed to be mismatched with what the scene was actually trying to get across.Nonetheless, quite a few color choices seemed to be mismatched with what the scene was actually trying to get across as some of the most unsettling and depressing scenes were bathed in warm, copasetic washes.
The costuming was wholly period while adding appropriate dashes of visual interest. For such a large cast, the costumers Wendy Eck and Dianne Dumais commendably made each piece seem thoroughly layered, and in some cases, tattered and worn down by the crushing poverty present in this play.
While Minton directed the show, he also played a leading role within it. As the stern and sometimes cruel uncle of Nicholas, Minton maintained utmost believability throughout his tragic character arc. Another standout adult performance was given by Andy Penn as Mr. Squeers; a typical Dickensian charlatan, exploiting all those who he can get his hands on in his occupation of a “schoolmaster.” Penn’s facial contortions and squeaky gruffness made him perfectly detestable. Sir Mulberry Hawk was played especially grimly by Keith Anderson, who seemed to effortlessly carry this violently self obsessed aristocrat. The adult players overall tended to lean towards hammier performances (with the exception of Minton), however, their clear experience allowed them to pull off these larger than life characters in such an intimate setting.
As for the young members of the cast, Isiah Silvers had the chance to play the titular character, and performed his role with considerable maturity. His portrayal exuded a relatable mixture of confidence and temerity, believably aging as the play progressed. His sister Kate, played by Laura Kennedy-Long, palpably expressed the weight of familial responsibility after her father’s death as she moved through trying professions and lifestyles of a young, poor girl in an unwelcoming city.
The children of the nasty schoolteachers, Fanny and Young Wackford Squeers, gave unique and attention grabbing performances. Zoe DeGrazia’s Fanny relied on a peculiar dialect that seemed to be an overblown, haughtily British accent, backed up by her knack for physical comedy. Ian Coursey displayed a promising amount of talent as Young Wackford, commanding attention with his brutally violent disposition despite his small frame. Additionally, Marcus Gordon’s John Browdie was an equally entertaining and likable character, who would leap to give you a raucous bear hug as readily as he would defend your family from bodily harm.
All in all, Lumina’s Nicholas Nickleby is a test of endurance for the audience as well as the numerous hard-working cast members. There are hidden gems of utterly adorably child actors and moving dramatic performances buried beneath the perplexing staging and at times slow pace.
Nicholas Nickleby is made for true fans of Charles Dickens, and if you are a Dickens’ fan, you may want to give Lumina Studio Theatre’s production a try.
Running Time: Three and a half hours, with one intermission.
Nicholas Nickleby plays through Sunday, May 12, 2013 with performances on Friday, May 10 7PM (Blue Cast);Saturday, May 11 2PM (Red Cast);Saturday, May 11 6:30PM (Blue Cast); and Sunday, May 12 2PM (Red Cast), At Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them online for The Blue Cast and for The Red Cast.