Over the past two decades, Glendale’s A Noise Within has tended to offer three kinds of plays, one each per Fall or Spring season. There’s something by Shakespeare, something by Ibsen, Moliere, Shaw, or an ancient Greek or Roman, and something more contemporary, say a play by Odets, Anouilh, Williams, Miller, or O’Neil. Now, with Neil Bartlett’s 2007 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations, California’s Home For The Classics gets the chance to merge the classical and the modern for an evening of classical contemporary (or contemporary classical) theater at its finest.

Narrated by its hero Pip (Jason Dechert), who frequently addresses the audience directly as if there were no fourth wall separating us from him, Bartlett’s adaptation manages to compact a 550-page book down to less than 100 pages (and just about two hours’ running time) using only Dickens’ own words. It also manages to sound amazingly modern for narrative and dialog written a hundred and fifty years ago, particularly in Dechert’s mesmerizing performance. The 20something actor, who never leaves the stage (a feat in and of itself), takes us from seven-year-old Pip to Mr. Phillip Pirrip age thirty-five or so, and is every bit as convincing as a small child terrified by an escaped convict in a cemetery one night as he is as the mature man that child becomes.

Under the polished, inventive direction of Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, we follow Pip lickety-split from his fateful graveyard encounter with Magwitch to being summoned as a playmate to the adopted daughter of the mysterious Miss Havisham to the news that riches have been bestowed on him by a mysterious benefactor to his life as a person of wealth and position in London society.

All this is accomplished in the most rewardingly theatrical of manners (no hyper-realistic movie this), with many of its cast of eight principal actors changing characters and even genders in the blink of an eye, while a four-member Greek Chorus (apparently the directors’ inspiration) comment on the action in the characters’ own words, move scenery, hand actors props, and assume minor roles.

Dechert, a handsome, talented newcomer to the Los Angeles theater scene, makes for a charming, charismatic hero. As Estella, the gorgeous Jaimi Paige is the very epitome of icy allure, a young woman who can win a man’s heart and soul in an instant and wound it for life if she so desires. Understudy Jane Macfie brings to the role of Miss Havisham the same quirky, scene-stealing flair she does to Madame Arcati in the concurrently running Blithe Spirit.

The remaining five principal cast members, all A Noise Within Resident Artists, double and even triple in a variety of standout character turns. The marvelous Mitchell Edmonds is Pip’s officious uncle Mr. Pumblechook, his coarse rival Bentley Drummle, and (most amusingly) a mountain of a Sarah Pocket. Elliott superbly delineates two very different characters—Pip’s brother-in-law Joe Gargery and Mr. Jaggers, the London lawyer who informs Pip of his good fortune. ANW treasure Jill Hill is a coarse but loving Mrs. Joe, a kind-hearted young Biddy, and in another gender-bender, Jagger’s aged clerk Wemmick. Stephen Rockwell does terrific work as the pugilistic young gentleman known as Herbert Pocket and as the scheming Compeyson. The versatile, hard-working young ensemble quartet is made up of A Noise Within interns Darby Bricker, Elizabeth Fabie, Kurt Quinn, and Taylor Jackson Ross.

Audience members who’ve read Great Expectations or seen any of its film or TV adaptations (or last year’s musicalization) will probably find it easiest to follow Pip’s condensed journey, but Bartlett’s script is adroitly constructed, and the Elliotts’ direction and the work of the production’s crackerjack design team go a long way towards keeping Dickens’ plot twists from becoming confusing. (Only the cause of Miss Havisham’s demise may be staged here in too stylized a manner to be grasped by those not having seen or read Great Expectations before.)

Kurt Boetcher’s striking, non-literal scenic design is a perfect fit for Bartlett’s script, which relies greatly on its audience’s ability to imagine. Angela Balogh Calin gets top marks for costumes that not only match each character, but can be changed in scarcely more than the blink of an eye. Ken Booth’s lighting design is another stunner, as is Andrew Villaverde’s sound design and Laura Karpman’s original music. Kudos also to Csilla Balogh and Julius Bronola (costume assistants), Renee Thompson Cash (properties), Monica Lisa Sabedra (wig, hair, and makeup design), and Adam Lillibridge (technical director). Meghan Kennedy is stage manager, Ashleigh Hannah assistant stage managers, Rebecca Baillie production manager, Ronnie J. Clark master electrician, and Alexandra Dunn scenic artist.

Whether you’re an adult looking to spend a couple of hours with a childhood favorite, a parent or teacher wanting to introduce a young person/young people to Dickens and live theater (thereby killing two birds with a single stone), or simply an avid playgoer, Great Expectations provides a splendid way to spend an evening or afternoon between now and the week before Christmas. Simply put, this is Los Angeles theater at its classiest and best.

A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale.
–Steven Stanley
November 21, 2010
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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