Nicholas Nickleby (Part 1)
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by David Edgar
Directed by Jim Helsinger and Christopher Niess
Starring John P. Keller, Allison McLemore, and Jean Tafler
Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Orlando FL
Just to give you a sense of scale, you can drive to Atlanta in the amount of time it takes to stage the two parts of this epic adaption of “Nicholas Nickleby.” As in any good Dickens story, there are dozens of great characters with delicious names, a sweeping scope and a wandering plot that takes you from an attic in Yorkshire to… well, I haven’t seen the second part yet. We might well end up in Zanzibar. But at the heart of this story is the desperation of Victorian England: the easy fall from respectable country gentry to workhouse reject, the brutality of boarding schools housing semi-abandoned children, and the immoral hard-heartedness of the newly wealthy. Scenes of brilliant comedy and heart wrenching desperation abound between exposition that struggles to remain exciting even as it keeps you connected to the hundred plus lives presented. This is surly a spectacle, and inside lurks three really solid one act plays.
The Nickleby’s story begins with his inept but gentle father (J.D. Sutton) who dies broke. Senior Nickleby’s brother Ralph (Greg Thornton) left years ago to take up usury and now owns a big chunk of London, he’s filthy rich but his heart is at least four or five sizes too small. In desperation Nicolas, his mother (Tafler) and his sister Kate (McLemore) head to London, the shining city of opportunity and the vicious Gomorrah of the unemployed refugees from a country side that no longer needs their daily labor. Ralph is unhappy when they show up, he agrees to help only on the condition they split up and live in most miserable conditions he can find. Nicholas is sent off to teach at a Yorkshire “boarding school”, Kate to a dodgy milliner’s shop, and Mom to an East End apartment so awful Ralph can find no tenants for it. Ralph does every evil villain thing short of rubbing his hands and laughing out loud.
Enough plot. We know this is a major undertaking on both sides of that invisible wall. If you are willing to make the commitment this show is worth seeing but it IS a commitment. Highlights include the brutal scene in Wackford Squeer’s (Richard B. Watson) school with him starving and whipping the boys mercilessly. Here we meet Smike (Stephen James Anthony), Nickleby’s sidekick for the rest of the evening; he looks like a cross between Gollum and “The Scream” after zombies eat half his leg. In Kate’s thread we visit the flamboyant Milner’s husband Mr. Mantalini (Quentin Earl Darrington). He was banned from the work room by his wife Madam Mantalini (Bridgette Hoover) lest he rape the employees. With time on his hands he puts her in debt and gambles it away, he eventually threatens suicide and flees up the mezzanine level where he demands a bottle of poison from the audience. I was fresh out, and I so hate to disappoint such a great performance. The best comedy came from Mr. Vincent Crummels (Philip Nolan) and his traveling overacting troupe. They can walk and chew scenery at the same time, and they adopt Nickleby and Smike. In an amazingly short time Nickleby translates a play, learns to act and stage fight and is a near instant hit in Portsmouth. How he’ll play in East Grimstead is uncertain, but it’s a good start to a career. Anne Hering is outstanding as the rag wrapped Mrs. Squeers and as Mrs. Crummels, she a utility wife with plenty of good lines. She stands out as Lady Caplulet in a rather fractured Shakespearean play within a play. Romeo and Juliet live happily-ever-after with Iago and Puck and I admit I needed someone to explain this unexpected final scene. The Victorians liked to make things better, and who really wants the young lovers to die?
Technically this is a tour de force. The set extend over the entire theater, seats have been removed and we can see all the way to the back wall of the house with its brick slum windows. A rickety and uneven looking cat walk hangs in the proscenium and a rotating stage speeds up the set changes plus it gives more motion to the walking scenes. Nearly every prop in the back room is on stage at one time or another and actors leave and enter though ever portal in the Margeson except the AC ducts. I can’t imagine the chaos back stage, and I’m pretty sure the unused lesser theatres are serving as dressing rooms. Plan your trip to this show carefully, there are a few other events running in Loch Haven and parking can be worse than Fringe. But do see this production if your bladder can handle it, it’s fun and scary and gripping, and it gives you theatrical bragging rights that are hard to come by anywhere else.
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