Extraordinary GREAT EXPECTATIONS at Stages at CCC

by Jack Shaw

Some might call it a surreal surprise. For me, it was. But you don’t have to understand 19th century literature to appreciate and enjoy Stages at Camden Community College’s production of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. The experience is much more than you might expect of any literature brought to the stage. The intensity and action in this production stand out along with strong acting, directing, set, sound, lighting and costuming. It doesn’t get much better than this.

I walked into the theatre and sat down, not knowing what to expect. The set was mostly upstage. Three lights focused on the floor, giving it an unearthly quality. I know now it was in preparation for the fog coming in over the “windswept marshes” and more. Expect that what you see next will have surreal feel to it and surrender to it. You’ll be glad you did.

Warning to English majors: this will not spoil your enjoyment of the novel in its entirety, nor should it take its place on any exam. It is pure enjoyment especially if you love theatre and what it can do.

The Charles Dickens novel, GREAT EXPECTATIONS is adapted for the stage by Neil Bartlett, and presented in a modern (as opposed to traditional) theatre style ensures that Dickens’ tale of an orphan named Pip who is raised roughly, deemed a common laborer, and confronted with life’s evils and gifts is indeed “edgy.” The play is also dark, foreboding, and full of guilt and forgiveness, which are Dickensian characteristics. When most of think of Charles Dickens (if we do much at all outside of school), the last word that comes to mind is “edgy” because that is a term we use to describe modern or contemporary theatre. But honing the sharpness of what Dickens has written does, in fact, take place on stage in several ways.

Accentuate Dickens’ words with powerful staging, lighting, music and sound effects. From the beginning when Pip comes down center stage in his black and gray suit and the fog rolls in you are in another time, another world. One difference between the play and the novel is the point of view. Pip, on stage throughout the play, narrates and plays his role from eight to 30 years of age. Obviously, there is another difference in the amount of words expressed on stage, but then ideas aren’t always expressed by words…

Despite its Victorian roots, Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS makes perfect sense dressed as modern theatre. Bartlett’s adaptation of Dickens’ novel, finds the range and tone of the lengthier work while telling the story to the audience in a first person narrative mixed with flashbacks, and using the ensemble to constantly remind you that this is…Theatre. The combination, of course, is the definition of modern theatre. The audience is always aware of the play’s message, and in this case, so is the protagonist, Pip.

Bartlett takes –the characters, the plot and melodrama from a classic 19th century story and turns it into a modern theatre script with recommendations, leaving the details to the director, in this case, Marjorie Sokoloff.

Sokoloff has done the rest magnificently by allowing for a simple set upstage with just enough room for the actors to move about, change costumes and move basic props, while leaving the rest of the stage for the actors’ scenes—props brought on and taken off as needed. She has created an environment where Pip is always at the heart of the action–usually on the receiving end of that action. She makes effective use of distance in her staging to isolate, to attack or to confront Pip until he understands what his “great expectations” should mean. He is always a prisoner of some sort until he is free to understand his world and his place in it, which mirrors the debate of the period. Can one’s place in society be changed by influence, wealth or character? Or, is it a combination? Or, is it all irrelevant?

The ensemble has a major part to play. They act as a chorus (as in Greek chorus), echo words, and even take part as extras. More importantly, the ensemble, dressed in black act as walls, gates, doors and even hedges, as barriers for Pip to overcome or not—symbolically or not. Their choreographed movements are as important as the actors’ lines and the acting. Without the ensemble, the flow isn’t there and play stumbles about–it wouldn’t work. Here it works beautifully, so they must be doing something right.

There have been some 16 film and at least five stage adaptations of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Most of us have had to read this novel or at least some of it, or another novel by Dickens in school so I see no need to give a summary of the story. You’ve seen or heard of these themes before used in works from other 19th Century writers—even those American writers. Dickens’ stories from this period explore the melodrama in society– between the wealthy and impoverished, good and evil, guilt and redemption, and the usual orphans who are rescued by generous surrogate mothers or fathers, who through strength of character (and money) will make a gentleman (or lady) out of “common laborers.” In this particular piece, the prison ships (due to severe overcrowding of prisons in London) are a constant reminder that evil lurks everywhere. So, the threat–the melodrama continues, perfect for the raw emotion of the theatre.

Donald Swenson’s set design is the keystone for GREAT EXPECTATIONS, allowing characters to move about on several different levels, never having to stick in one place. When they do, it’s on purpose. This is your first impression as you walk into the petite auditorium. The set is lit with streams of light coming from above, and spread to the floor, creating a pock marked floor, so it now resembles the earth–the marsh, the dirt floor, etc. (I’m guessing.)

The sound design, also by Swenson adds to the drama and excitement of the play, making the world of Dickens come alive. The lighting, too, designed by John Curall, is exceptional, especially the fire scene, where those of us in the audience could almost feel the flames. Special effects should not be missed either. There is one scene in particular that I liked for its special effects, but I’m not going to ruin it for you. Melissa Rittman’s costumes are definitely on the mark—at least as close as one can without spending thousands of dollars on period costumes. Quick changes are a vital. A final technical note: Tim Rinehart’s stage combat scenes are as realistic as it gets without drawing blood.

Overall, the acting is superb as it always is with this theatre. Every actor is a stand out in his or her own right, and that includes the ensemble, but I have to mention Geoff Bruen was “Pip,” there is no doubt. Let me repeat: all the performances are stellar. Melissa Connell, always the fine actress, gets special attention for make-up. It, too, makes an imprint.

English dialects abound, lower and upper class alike. As recommended by Neil Bartlett, some actors play two characters while others play only one. There is a reason for this that will become more apparent as you see the play. The following is not a criticism, but I think it deserves mention. Although the actors do a fine job of distinguishing the characters, I had a little trouble understanding some of the lines because the lines were spoken with the rapidity of someone fluent in the dialect (or in another language). The rapid speech and fast-pacing are necessary so listen and watch closely. Besides, you don’t want to miss a word anyway.

Book by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Neil Bartlett
Directed by Marjorie Sokoloff
December 6, 7, 12, 13 & 14 at 8pm
December 8, 2013 at 3pm
STAGES at Camden County College
Little Theatre
311 College Drive
Blackwood, NJ 08012
(856) 227-7200


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