Monday, February 1, 2016

Great Expectations—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

“The Play’s the Thing…”

One of the great novels by Charles Dickens is adapted for the stage by Lucinda Stroud (for Book-It Repertory Theatre) and directed by Jane Jones.  It is playing at the PCS space, 128 NW 11th Ave., through February 14th.  For more information, go to their site at www.pcs.org or call 503-445-3700.

Shakespeare certainly knew a thing or two about plot and characters driving a story forward on a stage.  And Dickens was his literary equal in books, creating such a rich tapestry, a visual feast for the eyes and mind that would seem impossible to perform on the stage and do justice to the book.  But if you do the play in a storytelling style, with a few actors playing all the roles, and interspersing the dialogue with narratives from the book, then you’ve come as close as you can in creating the book onstage.  A “novel” approach, I would say (groans from the readers are heard…).

In about 2 and a half hours, a cast of nine (most of them playing multiple roles) offers us, in a very satisfying fashion, Dickens’s work come to life on the boards.  It seems that Pip (Stephen Stocking), orphaned at an early age, has been raised by his shrewish sister, Mrs. Joe (Dana Green) and her patient husband, Joe (Gavin Hoffman), a blacksmith.  Pip’s lot in life, too, seems to be training for that profession, as well.  But, as fate would have it, a chance encounter with an erudite, escaped prisoner, Magwitch (John Hutton), would change his life forever.

He also has the good fortune to meet up with the eccentric, reclusive, rich Miss Havisham (Green, again) and her beautiful but proud ward, Estella (Maya Sugarman).  He is immediately smitten by her but is treated in distain by both of them, for no apparent reason.  Also his life is changing on the home front, too, as Joe has taken in a helper, the oily Orlick (Isaac Lamb), who is constantly trying to accost his good friend, Biddy (Sugarman, again).  And, out of the blue, a strange lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Hutton, again), has made Pip an offer he can’t refuse, to come to London and be tutored as a “gentleman,” all expenses paid, which he does but starts behaving soon, because of this, “bigger than his britches.”

Jaggers explains that the monies is coming from a mysterious source so best not to question it.  His clerk, Wemmick (Damon Kupper), feels for the boy so tries to help him as best he can.  His roommate, Herbert Pocket (Chris Murray), is a cheery sort and a good pal in teaching him the refinements of being a “gentleman.”  But his tutor, Drummle (Sean McGrath), is a hard taskmaster and also seems to have designes on Pip’s girl, Estella.  It all comes to a head when…but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?!  Just have to see it to find out how it all comes out.

I very much like this style of storytelling.  They essentially use just one set (designer, Christopher Mumaw) and then bring in various pieces/props that are relevant to the scene, and specific lighting changes (designer, Peter Maradudin), to tell the story.  Also the performers, except for costume (designer, Ron Erickson) changes, must rely on their acting abilities to transform from one character to another.  And Jones has chosen well her cast, all being exceptional, and is very adept at keeping things moving without losing track of the complicated story.  Quite a feat and she does it well.

Stocking seems perfect as the young boy who is transformed into a man.  Sugarman is also very keen in playing the two young ladies in the show.  Green, having been touted as an actor before in many Portland shows, is, again, super in enacting one of the great characters in all of literature, Miss Havisham, and she does Dickens proud in her portrayal here.  Hoffman, again a familiar face on Portland stages, is irresistible as the kindly, patient father-figure and friend of Pip.  Your heart goes out to him.  And Hutton, in his dual, key roles, is terrific!  He’s quite a find and is mesmerizing when on stage and very believable.  Hope we will see him again on Portland stages, as he’s a real asset to a show.

I recommend this play but, be warned, it can be a nightmare finding parking in this area of town, so plan your time accordingly.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.