Saturday, July 9, 2016

"Great Expectations" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

I seem to be one of a small number of people who were not forced to read the works of Charles Dickens when I was in high school (a fluke of time and place, I guess). I have since read "A Christmas Carol" (meh) and "A Tale of Two Cities" (wow!), and probably "Oliver Twist" on my own, so have much respect for Dickens as a writer. But I have never read the most commonly-assigned Dickens classics, "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations." So I didn't really know what to expect when OSF announced they were doing an adaptation of "Great Expectations" this season.

It's quite long, at three hours, but then you'd expect that from a Dickens story. There is a very simple set used for everything, perhaps because doing scene changes would have made the show even longer. But the simple set they have is really quite elaborate. I chose the photo above because it kind of shows at least part of the wooden contraption. All that wood serves as countryside, streets, walls, and so on. The jumble of boards in the back goes all the way up, and has a few candles placed on it.

None of us were able to figure out what the candles were for, nor why they flashed on or off all of a sudden at times. Apparently some symbolism escaped us. It seemed more apt to a production of "Waiting for Godot" than Dickens.

All that said, the staging didn't really bother me, except I kept wondering why they had all that wood in the background. The risers and ramps, at least, were used by the players.

The Adaptation

Despite never having read this book, it strikes me that the adaptation was pretty true to the style of Dickens, with lots of narration. Now, that works fine for a book, but really, narration in plays is out of place unless it comes in small doses. In this adaptation, they have chosen to put the narration right in your face, often having six or seven cast members in green coats standing spread over the wooden hillside, narrating the play.

So our basic take-away from this play was "too much narration; too many narrators."

It was utterly unclear why the narration couldn't have been done by the characters themselves, or better yet, just been shown instead of told. Having a narrator say something like "...and so Pip set out across the marshes to Miss Havishem's house again," it would be just fine to have Pip head off across the marshes to Miss Havishem's. The only explanation I have been able to come up with for this is that the adapters were trying to maintain the Dickensian style, but truly, if you're going to do that, why adapt it at all?

None of us cared for the narration, either the vast amount of it or the use of random cast members to deliver it.

Things I Did Like

There was a lot to like about this production, however, in spite of the annoying narration and the odd set. I thought Al Espinosa as Joe was quite good, Richard Howard as Wemmick was, too. And Brett Hinkley with his elastic face and comic timing gave a great turn as Uncle Pumblechook.

But I have to give special notice to two of my favorite voices in the OSF company. Derrick Lee Weeden as Magwitch manages to be both menacing and oddly comforting. And Michael Elich as Jaggers overcomes some odd-looking makeup to be a compelling force. Both of them have wonderful, deep, booming voices that they use to great effect. I always look through the program to find out what they are doing every year, and look forward to their performances.

Bottom Line

As always, an excellent performance by the OSF company. I really didn't think the set design was up to their usual standards (or I just didn't get what they were up to with it). And really, it show does the job, tells the story, etc. But I can't help thinking that it could have been much more compelling if it hadn't just been a bunch of scenes linked by (annoying, excessive) narration.

It felt like not enough imagination went into the adaptation and staging, so the fact that the cast and crew make a good go of it mostly saves the day. So rather ironically, I didn't have much in the way of expectations coming in, but I can't really say they were exceeded. The play felt much smaller than the story it was retelling, which is unfortunate.


  1. My favorite line of your critique: "overcomes some odd looking make up." Good assessment overall, especially about the many narrators.

    1. Maybe it was just that night, but Jaggers was sort of ghastly and pale, but in a way that just looked like odd makeup.