by CHRISTINE SARKES
This is not your dreaded high school AP English version of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: Director Joel Sass’s adaptation at Park Square Theatre is instead alive and accessible, with diverse casting and dynamic staging that highlight the humor and humanity of the play. My daughter, who was my guest to the opening night and inauguration of Park Square’s 2016 season, wondered how the director would adapt the story “to a new generation” as it was billed and so did I. We were expecting a modern set and costuming, but found instead a faithful telling of the Dickens tale with near verbatim dialogue and period setting from the novel. In the play notes, Sass says, “I wanted to keep as close to Dickens’s actual words as possible. The task I gave myself wasn’t to write a new play but rather to whittle the novel down to size, rearrange and combine the various elements to reveal the play that is already inside.” The newness can be found in the diverse casting and dynamic use of sound effects, prop changes, cast member asides and other staging techniques to keep the pacing quick and dialogue accessible to all audiences. In fact, this production is part of Park Square’s impressive student education program that boasts one of the largest teen theater audiences in the nation. Sass’s adaptation successfully focuses on the love story and mystery at the heart of the play, without diminishing weightier themes of the Dickens novel, such as the clash of classes, greed and excess, the brutality of the legal system and the crushing weight of poverty. Dickens purists might take exception to subplots and some exposition missing from this adaptation, but we thought it helped move the story along by focusing on the essential story of Miss Havisham, Pip and his enduring love for Estella.
As anyone who has taken AP English knows, the story centers on Pip (Ryan Colbert), an orphaned boy who meets an escaped convict, a reclusive dowager, Miss Havisham (Barbra Berlovitz), and her pretty ward, Estella (Hope Cervantes). He expects little of life except to escape the abuse of his older sister and guardian and to apprentice at her husband’s blacksmith shop. These chance meetings during Pip’s boyhood, however, change his future life and expectations forever, raising his hopes and conjuring the old adage, “be careful what you wish for.” Pip begins to notice his class failings and wishes to become a gentleman. When fate intervenes and he inherits property as a young man from a mysterious benefactor, Pip leaves his poverty and family behind for London, where he begins the life of a London gentleman with “great expectations,” while yearning to be a part of Miss Havisham’s and Estella’s life again. The mystery of Miss Havisham’s bizarre world, Estella’s upbringing, the fate of the convict and Pip’s mysterious benefactor unfolds throughout the play, while Pip struggles to remain true to himself and to find love.
Colbert and Cervantes give wonderful performances, capturing the energy, innocence and allure of their characters. Most of the remaining cast play more than one part and act as Greek chorus, prop movers and sound effect makers to the action on stage. Comical standouts were Miss Havisham’s poor relations, the Pockets, played by Cheryl Willis, Adam Qualls, and Patrick Bailey. Go to this play to impress your neighbors, English teacher or book club but leave with the indelible majesty of Dickens’s words and theatricality freshly re-imagined in your mind.
Great Expectations, novel by Charles Dickens, adapted and directed by Joel Sass. Costume design by Sonya Berlovitz, stage manager Megan Fae Dougherty. Now through February 7 at Park Square Theatre, Historic Hamm Building, Downtown St. Paul, 20 West Seventh Place, St. Paul. Tickets: $40 and $60. Reservations at Box Office: 651.291.7005 or online at www.parksquaretheatre.org.