Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Though not quite as widely known as such Dickens mainstays as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and, of course, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations has been the assigned reading of legions of high school students. It bears all the typical hallmarks of Dickens, set in his mid-nineteenth century England, when rampant capitalism, the blight-producing industrial revolution, Victorian moralism, and rigid class distinctions created a backdrop for stories that run up and down the ladder between desperate poverty and fabulous wealth.
Pip, the hero of Great Expectations, is a poor orphan being raised "by hand" by his stern sister Mrs. Joe and her kind-hearted blacksmithing husband Joe. Pip's fate becomes intertwined with that of another orphan, Estella, who has been adopted by Miss Havisham, a woman of great wealth, forever wounded by the bridegroom who left her unwed at their wedding altar. Pip is summoned by Miss Havisham to play in her estate, Satis House, an invitation Joe and Mrs. Joe believe will bring him good fortune. Miss Havisham's intent, though, is to use Pip as fodder for Estella's cruelty, as she is raising Estella to break men's hearts.
Pip does falls under Estella's thrall, and then is sent away from Satis House. Soon after, he is made the beneficiary of a mysterious donor who, under cloak of anonymity, provides funds for Pip to be plucked from the blacksmith's cottage, ensconced in London and groomed as a proper gentleman, with assurance that he has "great expectations" indeed. This is what Pip has longed for, and he makes the transition with elation. With the attorney Mr. Jaggers as guardian, guidance from Jagger's clerk Mr. Wemmick, and shared lodging with Herbert Pocket, Pip embraces both the pleasures and high cost of a gentleman's life. He continues to cross paths with Estella, his hopes of winning her affection rising and falling as his journey unspools. As he enters adulthood, it seems Pip has squandered his "great expectations". But this is Dickens, and that means plot twists, surprise identities, and hard-learned life lessons.
Too, this being Dickens, the novel has an abundance of characters and subplots. In his adaptation, Sass has wisely pared away all that does not pertain directly to Pip and his journey from child to man. That leaves more than enough story to occupy the stage, and the constant forward motion of the plot keeps the audience engrossed. As director, Sass has staged the entire story within a single set, with a massive hearth, imposing portal, and assorted wooden crates and barrels that are moved around to create tables and tombstones, a blacksmiths bench and prison boat, a horse-drawn coach and all that is needed to bring the tale to life. For example, Pip's entrance into London is met by the ensemble swarming around him, waving scale models of the city's buildings up and down, stirring up both his exuberance and apprehension of so suddenly changing from bumpkin to townsman. Its simplicity keeps our focus on Pip and the plot's intricacies, while its creativity completely delights. Likewise, the modest way in which the death of Mrs. Joe is depicted is the essence of clarity and grace.
Aside from Pip and Miss Havisham, all of the characters are played by actors in multiple roles who also form an ensemble. Among other duties, the ensemble serves to provide wondrous sound and music effects, using accordion, chimes, wood blocks, plucked strings and more. The sound, the fluid lighting design, the set, and prop designs combine into exquisite storytelling. Added to the pageant are marvelous costumes that pinpoint each character's personality and station.
Pip is played by Ryan Colbert, who has been making an impression in roles at the Guthrie, Pillsbury House, Mixed Blood, and other Twin Cities stages. Here he emerges as a major young actor, carrying the long and elaborate arc of his character. Though tall and lanky, Colbert manages to seem small and meek as the young Pip, transforming into a sleek bon-vivant as a gentleman of means, and expressing an exhaustive range of feelingsthe dread fear of a boy in the graveyard, the moony-eyed love of a young man, the desperation of a man whose chances are running out, the heart-torn regret of one who has neglected those who have been faithful to him. Colbert carries this performance like a torch alit from start to finish line.
The part of Miss Havisham has a narrower range, but calls for skilled acting to keep from becoming a shrill cartoon. Barbara Berlovitz plays the part to a tee. Her bitterness and loathing are never in doubt, yet she has poise enough to maintain her dignity. When, later on, she has misgivings, Berlovitz is able to draw out sympathy for this character, who might have seemed an expendable miscreant. Hope Cervantes plays both the icy Estella and her polar opposite, kind and patient Biddy, who is Pip's childhood confidante. She makes the shift between the two seamlessly, showing how loveliness can be both a form of generosity and a weapon.
The always fine Ansa Akyea plays the kind-hearted and humble blacksmith Joe, Pip's brother-in-law, who is the embodiment of unconditional love, as well as Mr. Jaggers, the stone-hearted, all business barrister, doing full justice to both roles. Cheryl Willis is delightful as Pip's sister Mrs. Joe, who can be harsh as horseradish, but turn giddy at the whisper of an opportunity to advance her status, and provides comic relief as a poor relation of Miss Havisham. Adam Qualls is terrific as he divides his attention between the roles of Herbert Pocket, who becomes Pip's sensible and steadfast friend, and Bentley Drummle, a scoundrel whose wealth gives him the upper hand as a rival for Estella's affections. Along with E.J Subkoviak and Patrick Bailey, who both also excel in multiple roles, this ensemble is adept not only at quick change of costume, but of persona.
With only three weeks remaining in its run, not nearly enough people will have the opportunity to see this wonderful production of Great Expectation. Those who do will be able to count themselves very fortunate indeed.
Great Expectations continues at Park Square Theatre on the Proscenium Stage through February 7, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $19.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $25.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance. A $2.00 facility fee will be added to each ticket. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Adapted and Directed by: Joel Sass; Assistant Director: Maxwell Collyard; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Michael P. KIttel; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Composer: Dan Dukich; Dialect Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty
Cast: Ansa Akyea (Joe Gargery, Mr. Jaggers), Patrick Bailey (Mr. Wopsle, Sarah Pocket, Compeyson, Mr. Wemmick), Barbara Berlovitz (Miss Havisham), Hope Cervantes (Estella, Biddy), Ryan Colbert (Pip), Adam Qualls (Herbert Pocket, Bentley Drummle, Sergeant), E.J. Subkoviak (Abel Magwitch, Mr. Pumblechook), Cheryl Willis (Mrs. Joe, Mrs. Pocket).