Oregon Shakespeare Festival delivers on Dickens' "Great Expectations"

OSF in Ashland revives Victorian classic.

Young Pip with his benefactor. Photo: Jenny Graham

In any staging of Great Expectations, one never knows quite what to expect. All too easy to turn Charles Dickens’ Victorian classic into a cheap, gothic penny dreadful or a mawkish melodrama.

But this year’s rendering at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland sidesteps such pitfalls to deliver a production that’s taut and gripping, despite its built-in sentimentalism.

To do so, director Penny Metropulos and her co-adapter Linda Alper had to boil down the original 500-page bildungsroman into a tidy two-act play that could be staged live, in real-time, without recourse to any cinematic flimflam.

Great Expectations has been a school curricular staple for so long that it's well known to everyone from baby boomers to this year’s graduating seniors – OSF’s two core demographics.

And all have strong opinions about it, whether dyed-in-the wool fandom or deep antipathy, depending upon how the book was taught. Either way, any fresh take on the story needs to end-run a phalanx of preconceptions. 

The action, spanning nearly three decades, tracks a young orphan, Pip, who’s abruptly yanked out of rustic poverty to be “gentrified” in Victorian London as the trust-fund heir of a mysterious benefactor.

The novel’s narrative, in Pip’s first-person voice, features lengthy introspections, moody landscapes and set pieces, a couple of dozen colourfully embroidered characters, plus no shortage of cliff-hanging plot twists and far-fetched coincidences. 

So how to wrestle such a sprawling farrago onto even so snazzy a stage as OSF’s state-of-the-art Bowmer Theatre? Alper and Metropulos wisely preserve Dickens’ evocative landscapes and interiors, but forego trying to recreate them in realistically representational stage sets. Instead, they rely on recitations of the book’s own richly descriptive language.

Rather than loading all this narration onto the solo voice of Pip himself, they distribute it among a chorus of anonymous ensemble players who deploy themselves about the ramps and platforms of scenic designer Collette Pollard’s ingeniously abstract set.

The backdrop – just a mosaic of dark, blank rectangles with a backlit scrim showing through – can become the “dark, flat wilderness” of the Kentish marshes, a bachelor dandy’s London digs, the shut-in gloom of a hermit spinster’s lair, a blacksmith’s croft, a skylit law office, the night-shrouded delta of the Thames, a formal garden or a Newgate dungeon.

All these scene shifts can be invoked with just a few judicious foreground props and a subtle colour shift in lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith’s cyclorama.

It takes way more than stagecraft, though, to keep a diverse audience engaged for a three-hour rehash of a story so familiar to many. So for this year’s Great Expectations, Metropulos has cast a stellar mix of Ashland neophytes and OSF stalwarts.

Foremost among the newbies: Benjamin Bonenfant, whose Pip adroitly surfs the treacherous shoals of Brit class culture without ever quite shedding his humane innocence. Another first-timer is Nemuna Ceesay, who plays Pip’s ice-queen inamorata, Estella.

OSF standby Derrik Lee Weeden creates a larger-than-life presence as Magwitch, the escaped convict who first terrorizes the juvenile Pip (Bodhi Johnson) and then, decades later, risks all to return and reveal himself as the shadowy patron of his now-gentrified heir.

Caroline Shaffer, a nine-season Ashland veteran, plays Miss Havisham, the vengeful recluse who carefully handcrafts Estella into a heartless man-trap. The role was originally created for the late Judith-Marie Bergan, herself a 15-season veteran, who died in the middle of the play’s run. Understudy Shaffer infuses the character with a spidery allure all her own.

Another late-season substitute was Andrew Borba, standing in for Michael Elich as the cold-blooded lawyer Jaggers. Hard to imagine a more mesmeric, reptilian shyster.

Dickens, in his time, tried out two different endings to Great Expectations. Both feature Pip, returned from 11 years’ self-exile in Cairo, re-encountering a chastened, humanised Estella.

In the more crowd-pleasing version – favoured by most mass-audience dramatizations – the two of them pair off in belated coupledom with “no shadow of another parting.” But the alternative ending has them drift apart into rueful, life-long bachelorhood.

Aptly, in this year of bitter class and sexual politics, Ashland’s 2016 production opts for the sadder, wiser denouement. 

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