Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Old Curiosity Shop - Just Melt into the Storyline

Martin Giles as Quilp and Caroline Lucas as Nell in "The Old Curiosity Shop" Credit: Courtesy Photo

Sufferin' sycophant. What is Pittsburgh coming to? While praiseworthy theater has long been part of the city's cultural fabric, my two latest theater outings blew me away with the top notch quality of both. First came, "Sweat" at Pittsburgh Public Theater (see review below). Now comes "The Old Curiosity Shop," Charles Dickens' serial novel brought to light on stage through an adaptation by Alan Stanford, who also directs.

Stanford admits in his director's notes in the program booklet that turning the 103,000 word novel into his 24,046 play was no easy task. To paraphrase, it was a matter of metamorphosizing the original by eliminating 103,000 words.

Honestly, I must admit that at one point on my hour and fifteen minute-drive in to see the play I almost turned around and headed for home. Not having read the book, I was ruminating on the logic of venturing out on a bitterly cold night uncertain if I'd enjoy the play-full experience. But I persevered nonetheless and jolly good thing I did.

As a teen, I got my first taste of Dickens with novels like "The Pickwick Papers," "Great Expectations" and "A Tale of two Cities."  Like a budding sommelier who locks the flavor, bouquet and aroma of wine into his memory, Dickens' style, wit and way with words permeated my youthful memory banks in such a way that I  immediately recognized Dickens' tone and literary texture in the play, despite its having come down second hand through Stanford and years later as well.

As happens once in a while, especially with the works of Shakespeare, it takes me a while to leave the "everyday world" when the curtain on a dramatic work rises and submerge my consciousness on what's unfolding on stage. This process occurred early in Curiosity Shop with an introductory scene so animated I had a hard time shifting gears from my angst-fraught fears that I'd be late for the show to one of relaxed concentration.

But, as the evening wore on, I lost all residue of my personal malaise and actually melted into the plot losing all sense of self in a sort of transcendent experience bordering on "in the now." I only mention this because the storyline, unfamiliar to me at the time, was so compelling and full of Dickensian spirit, despite Stanford's obviously successful and praiseworthy tinkering (although tinkering is too trivial and lackluster a word to use in regard to Mr. Stanford's abilities).

Fifteen actors on a minimal set is the raw material from whence the play ensues. Like leavening bread, the venture is invigorated with a life of its own and rises to the occasion. Those who frequent Pittsburgh theater will recognize many of the actors in their adopted patois and Victorian guise (designed so aptly by Joan Markert). James Fitzgerald as the ignominious lawyer , Brass; Karen Baum as his stern and severe sister; Jonathan Visser and Ken Bolden in multiple roles and Matt Henderson his usual impish self playing the Boy

New to me but definitely two to keep my eye on in future theatrical ventures Sean Lenhart as Fred/Boatman and Schoolmaster and Jordan Ross Weinhold as Dick Swiveller added contrasting characterological color to the play's dynamic. Kendra McLaughlin fascinated me as the narrator and other roles but became even more interesting when I discovered in the program she holds a Masters' Degree in Existential Phenomenology from Duquesne University. (I'd love to interview her for an article to see how her degree influences her acting).

Caroline Lucas, only a junior at North Allegheny Senior High, does well as Nell, the story's young heroine whose grandfather, Patrick Conner, is the owner of the titular emporium. An addition to Nell's all-goodness-and-light disposition is the equally high-minded and principled Kit (Jacob Epstein).

Not to be overlooked are Kaitlin Kerr, Calema Graham and Jeff Monahan who do much with lesser roles.
Hoping not to miss anyone, I've checked my list and counted it twice all in an effort to say who's naughty or nice.

Ah, but I've saved the best for last.

I've seen Martin Giles perform on various Pittsburgh stages several times before but in this one he seems to have honed his craft "a point" as chefs in better restaurants refer to the perfectly done steak. It's as if he's called on all his years of experience, distilled what he learned and put all his prowess, knowledge and energy into creating a villain's villain. If Richard the Third (as Shakespeare depicts him) was reincarnated, Martin Giles as the wicked, licentious, greedy and malevolent Quilp is your man.

Giles limps across the stage with a body just as deformed as his soul. Indefatigable in his pursuit of the naive and innocent Nell and her grandfather's money, he's devious, unscrupulous and seems to take pleasure in it all.

Like in many Dickens' novels, the characters in The Old Curiosity Shop suffer the vicissitudes of life . It's the ups and downs that make the story so arresting despite the fact that some of plot turns seem contrived and too serendipitous to reflect "real life."  For one, that Quilp could find the trail of Nell and her Granddad out of London north through the hinterlands of England so easily is a hard pill to swallow. At most, they're small nuisances easily forgotten in such an epic undertaking. The play is so well acted, directed, presented (and let's not forget written) it's like the proverbial spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

 “The Old Curiosity Shop”is at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio, 4802 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh through Dec. 15. For tickets, phone 412-561-6000 or www.picttheatre.org.

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