Thursday, November 18, 2010

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

By Joe Straw

Somewhere in Glendale lays this monolith. Seen from miles around, this white structure houses A Noise Within Theater Company (ANW). As curious as the actors are they are obliged to touch this monolith. This is done for them to gather inspiration and knowledge before they walk up the sacred steps into moments unknown.

And as patrons walk to the top floor, they cautiously reflect on their lives. They must think whether the walk up of three flights of stairs is either exhilarating or debilitating. One supposes that those thinking “death is near” at the top will only forget moments later when they remember this is Charles Dickens and the play they are about to see is Great Expectations.

One can hardly sit quietly and wait for the lights to dim, the music to rise, and the visual feast to begin. And on this night there was another full house eager to witness the magic.

The Scenic Design by Kurt Boetcher and the set pieces stand silently and wait for the actors to guide the interior monoliths around the stage to great effect. The walls are both neatly designed lavish homes and rickety walls that are pushed and pulled by the chorus of actors. The gates of lavish homes suddenly become empty cupboards and jails that hold back the unsightly population, the destitute and the ignorant. And unjustly so as these are the things we expect to see in a presentation from Charles Dickens’ life.

Beautiful costumes by Angela Balogh Calin are magnificent in design and work in moving the struggle of a lonely boy into manhood.

There seems to be a cast of hundreds but in actuality there are only eight performers doing yeoman work.

Everyone who knows the story will be delighted by this interpretation of Great Expectations because this play is both beautiful and excruciatingly painful. Directed by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, it is hard to tell where Julia begins and Geoff ends but each are working toward the same goal.

Briefly, the story is a rag to riches story. A boy so poor yet he has aspirations of becoming a gentleman and his expectations are so great he will do anything to get there. But as always life conspires against him, and his riches seem to come upon him unexpectedly. But riches do not ensure happiness when you’re a young man in love with a woman who, exasperatingly, cannot be possessed.

Jason Dechert as Pip does an outstanding job growing into the role from a small boy to the much-distinguished Mr. Phillip Pirrip. Pips’ reflection, through narration, guides us through the many avenues of a man’s life. (Namely, his own.) But, he is stumped by truth of his mysterious benefactor. It is a notion that guides and confuses him throughout the play.

Joe Gargery, Geoff Elliott, lives life as though he were “happy dog”. And Elliott has some wonderful moments on stage as the smithy. Small moments of him reaching for more light, grabbing the light bulb to see his work, are particularly wonderful. His action, to perfect an imperfection, is a genuinely proud moment with which all audience can relate. He was also wonderful as Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer responsible for funding Pip.

Mrs. Joe, Jill Hill, is a violent character, wanting more out of life but not knowing how to get there except through cruelty to her loved ones. Her frustrations are the result of humiliating poverty and lack of clarity. The role is exceptional.

Herbert Pocket, Stephen Rockwell, teaches Pip to become a gentleman at a dinning room table. This scene was brilliantly executed and wonderfully presented. And while there may have been reasons why these two were together for the extended period this was not fully explored. And one wonders why all the fussing about money throughout his relationship with Pip. Was he aware of the funds being limited in scope?

Also, there is another dinning room scene with Mr. Pumblechook, Joe Gargery, Mrs. Joe, Jill Hill and Pip that was marvelous. Lights out, dinner finished, lights on, carry on with life.

A week later I'm still laughing at Deborah Strang's performance as Miss Havisham. Strang is a consummate actress and her entrance is as spectacular as one can get. (Her character appearance can only be described as a resemblance to Edward Sissorhands' sister.) Nevertheless, as Miss Havisham, she is stuck in an emotional time capsule and not letting any light enter her mansion while her darkened heart laments over a lost love. She finds her way in life in the wedding dress she has not taken off since that hateful day when her betrothed ran out on her. It is now in rags, and her wedding cake still preserved after, oh so many years, is displayed in a pathetic act of self-aggrandized sympathy. Strang’s performance was enormously breathtaking!

Mitchell Edmonds, as Mr. Pumblechook, and in drag as Sarah Pocket is a favorite at ANW. Always amusing, entertaining, outrageous and as subtle as any actor can be. What an outstanding performance.

Daniel Reichert as Able Magwitch the prisoner gets us into the meat of the story. He is almost the backbone of the play. Appearing in the second act was slightly confusing concerning his aoristic lifestyle but his performance in the first act was absolutely marvelous. This was a wonderful performance.

Estella, Jaimi Paige, is a guarded debutante instructed by the power hungry Miss Havisham. It is a life that does not give her satisfaction but nevertheless gives her a power over any man she desires. Paige’s performance is stunningly coy. And she is beautifully package into Pandora’s Box waiting for the next fool to peek inside.

As always one can only expect great things from the other actors in this production who are Darby Bricker, Elizabeth Fabie, Kurt Quinn, and Taylor Jackson Ross

The directing team of Elliott and Elliott always produces theatre that is specific in character and goal oriented. The show is excellent in the first half and only slightly out of focus in the second act which is not to take away from this marvelous production. Possibly the cast was ironing out problems out on opening night and those issues have been resolved.

A Noise Within production is an awakening giant for the napping Los Angeles theatre going audience. Its future new home in Pasadena surely stimulates the senses. Leave your TV’s at home, and forget about the small celluloid performances wedged in between long celluloid commercial periods. Expand your mind, get out, meet and greet and support their new home in Pasadena.

Through December 19, 2010

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