Charles Dickens career as a writer, journalist, and editor was well-established when he wrote Great Expectations. He did not disappoint.
Originally published in All Year Round, a weekly magazine edited by Dickens, it was serialized over an eight month period, from December 1, 1860 through August 3, 1861, in the popular publication before being published as a novel.
The work has a dizzying number of characters, plots, and subplots spread over the lifetime of Pip, the main character, from his childhood into middle age. In the novel, Pip is the narrator. Yet, in this delightful adaptation by Gale Childs Daly, the dozens of characters are portrayed by six amazingly quick-changing actors, five of whom are listed as Narrators.
Daly ably condenses the myriad plotlines from what became a 500-page novel into a clear, concise plot that reveals the motivation and drive behind most of Great Expectations’ many characters as the show moves along.
The fast-paced classic is directed by Tazwell Thompson, renowned for directing operas around the globe. Under his direction, the actors seamlessly segued from one character to the next, and back again, sometimes in the blink of an eye. He was superbly supported by Stage Manager Cat Wallis.
Literally the show’s biggest star is the amazing, must-see set design by Yu-Hsuan Chen. The audience members who arrived early to the soldout show either sat in their chairs, stunned by the vista, or went up front for a closer look. At intermission, crowds clustered around a doll-house size rendition of the set on display in the lobby.
It is just one set, but is used interchangeably for every scene in the show – from the grasslands of Kent to the waters of the Thames. If it was a real place, most of the audience would have contracted psoriasis by intermission. Yu-Hsuan Chen created the creepy, moldering home of Miss Havisham, the elderly woman who, jilted on her wedding day, never removed her wedding dress and still sadly displays her tiered wedding cake topped with a crumbling gazebo and gnawed by rats.
The massive stage design depicting the once-elegant house is dark and dank-looking from the moldy floorboards of the stage and staircase, to the decaying, fungi-encrusted walls, time worn and torn furniture, rotting linens and swaths of stained, peeling wallpaper.
The impact of the striking design is underscored by Stephen Quandt’s original lighting. It includes a creative use of shadows suggesting sunlight streaming through the treetops that can turn menacing.
Crisp and effective, too, is Fabian Obispo’s sound design. Quandt and Obispo collaborated to create realistic – and scary – weather effects.
David Burdick’s exquisite costumes suggested 19th century dress of the various British classes, but did not get bogged down in details – and enabled the audience to recognize the quick character changes.
Props, also, to Props Master Jillian Mathews and to Yu-Hsuan Chen for two pieces of furniture that get an extra workout during the show. One is a tufted Victorian chaise lounge that has many roles: chair, bed, cemetery plot, even, a rowboat. The other is a (thankfully) sturdy wooden dining table on wheels. In one scene, Pip (Drew Kopas) is spun wildly around atop the table while hanging on tightly. He uses a dancer’s trick to maintain his equilibrium and deliver his lines.
In this adaptation, Drew Kopas portrays Pip, and is onstage nearly every moment of the performance. His is a commanding presence onstage as Pip, from boyhood through maturity to adulthood. At times, his narration is one of a much older person, looking back at his past. Other times, it is the play-by-play retelling of a person immersed in the current action.
Among the roles taken on and chewed with relish by the other members of this amazing ensemble cast, Narrator #1, Bruce Randolph Nelson, tears into the roles of the convict Magwitch and Uncle Pumblechook; Gerrad Alex Taylor (Narrator #2) is engaging as “Pip’s Comrade,” and, yes, Hamlet. The roles of Mrs. Joe Gargery, Miss Havishamand Molly are deftly portrayed by Franchelle Stewart Dorn; Elizabeth Anne Jernigan (Narrator #4) is the working class Biddy, the murderous convict Compeyson and upper class Estella. Joe Gargery, Herbert Pocket and Bently Drummle are owned by Brit Herring (Narrator #5), another quick-change character actor.
As the classic tale begins, Pip is a poor orphan boy who lives with his abusive and much older sister Mrs. Joe and her blacksmith husband Joe. Mrs. Joe doesn’t believe in kindness when a smack with her fist or a cane will do.
It is the start of a show that transported the rapt audience into a magical evening of layered storytelling and intriguing dramatic performances.
The story is about accidental meetings that can change a life, the unquenchable desire for money – and the consequences of going into debt, and the lust for status and love at all stations in life – whether today or 160 years ago – and the ability of love to change the course of a lifetime.
Visiting the graves of his parents and several siblings, Pip encounters Magwitch, an escaped convict, who threatens him with a knife and orders him to return the next day with food and a file so he can remove his leg irons. Pip steals food and liquor from his sister’s kitchen, a file is taken from Joe’s tool supply. When Pip returns to the cemetery, he stumbles over another convict, the murderous Compeyson, before meeting up with Magwitch. Those two meetings set up a chain of events that continue throughout the play.
Not long after, Pip starts an apprenticeship in the blacksmith forge with Joe and learns he’s to be a playmate for Estella, a young girl who lives in the crumbling house of Miss Havisham.
Eventually, Pip is provided with a large sum of money from an anonymous donor he assumes is Miss Havisham. He further speculates she is grooming him to become a suitable suitor for Estalla. When, years later, he learns the source of the money, he is shocked and mortified. His carefully crafted world as an elite crumbles faster than Miss Havisham’s house.
One of the most surprising moments in the show is the unexpected injection of a performance, in a stilted Victorian rendition, of “Hamlet.” Yes, it is played for laughs – and the audience laps it up.
Whether you are an avid Charles Dickens reader or a Game of Thrones fan, Everyman Theatre’s Great Expectations is a ‘Must-See.’ Add it to this winter’s bucket list.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
There is a special Valentine’s Day performance on Tuesday, February 14, 2017, at 7:30 PM. For every performance attendees can park across the street at the Atrium Garage -308 West Fayette Street, in Baltimore, MD, and can pay $11.00.