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By John Quinn
Review: ‘Great Expectations’
Hilberry presents a ‘Pip’ of a play
The caution sign at the theater door reads, “This show contains the use of pyrotechnics, loud cannon fire, hazer, fog machine and pipe smoke.” Yeah, this is Charles Dickens, all right. Atmospheric, don’t ya know?
The Hilberry Theatre adds “Boz” to their repertory season with an adaptation of “Great Expectations” by Barbara Field. It’s the tale of a Kent County blacksmith’s apprentice, nicknamed Pip, who is unexpectedly elevated to London gentleman status by the support of an anonymous patron. It recounts his rise, his fall, and his redemption.
Admit it – Charles Dickens is one of those dead white men you’ve never actually read. The characters and plots of his novels are universally known, but few readers will voluntarily wade through his Victorian prose; Dickens was frequently paid by the word, and he was no fool in padding his paycheck. The 1980 adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby” ran eight and a half HOURS! At a tad over two hours, “Expectations” is the theatrical version of CliffsNotes.
But while the production cannot capture the majestic sweep of a Dickens novel, something good happened in the translation from page to stage: “Great Expectations” became a rip-snortin’ melodrama.
Blessings on director Blair Anderson for playing this straight. As improbable coincidences pile on shocking revelation, the performance remains low-keyed, without so much as a broad wink at the audience.
The company relies on Story Theater technique to flesh out the characters in the book and to preserve some of the sumptuous descriptive passages. The busy cast of 13 wears multiple hats (and cloaks, coats, gloves and dresses) to populate Dickens expansive work. Whether in a scene or merely on the sidelines observing, cast members assume the narrator role.
With the approach of Halloween, how appropriate to find on stage one of the creepiest characters in the Dickens stable of oddballs, the reclusive Miss Havisham. Left at the altar by her suitor, she is carrying out revenge against all men, and uses her ward Estella (the Star – beautiful, cold and unattainable) as her weapon. As played by Lisa Betz in Marilyn Manson makeup, Havisham presides over the first act like a spider in the center of her web. She’s a decayed soul in a decayed wedding dress, buried in the depths of a decaying mansion.
The Hilberry ensemble performs in its usual first-rate tradition. Tony Bozzuto plays Pip as a doe-eyed innocent, not up to the challenge of such a radical change in circumstances. It’s a while before we see the basic moral fiber show through the superficiality. Like so many of Dickens’s young heroes, one wants to pick him up by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into him. But Dickens writes about dreamers, and dreamers must work through their nightmares on their own.
All in all, an evening of entertaining theater, and you don’t have to sit through eight hours of “Nicholas Nickleby.”
“Great Expectations” Performed in repertory Wednesday through Saturday at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass, Detroit, through Dec. 13. Tickets: $12 – $20. 313-577-2972. http://www.theatre.wayne.edu/t”hilberry.html
The Bottom Line: Pay attention, join in the spirit of the evening and you’ll be in for a little fun.
Plowshares proves “Home” is where the heart is
Even in a town known for impressive theater lobbies, Plowshares Theatre Company’s home is a knockout. Of course, entry to the General Motors Theater is through the soaring splendor of the rotunda in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
This honey of an auditorium is hosting a sweet little play!
Playwright Samm-Art Williams crafted well when he created the Tony Award-nominated “Home,” which opens the 2003-04 Plowshares season. A little Book of Job, a little Parable of the Prodigal Son, it explores universal themes rendered in the popular culture by works as varied as “Gone With the Wind” or “The Wizard of Oz.” There’s healing in the land; a portion of our very identity is determined by our origins; if you will, “There’s no place like home.”
“Home” defies easy description. It’s called a comedy, but it’s not a laugh riot. It has only a three-person cast, but many, many characters. It’s a work of great simplicity and subtle beauty, but is powerfully inspirational.
In that capacity, it’s not unlike that rotunda mentioned above. It stands as an excellent example of the Plowshares company goal: exploring art from the African-American perspective, but with a story that resonates in any culture.
Cephus Miles, played by John Woolridge III, is a backcountry farm kid caught up in the draft of the Vietnam War. He serves jail time rather than violate the family principles, “Thou shall not kill. Love your enemy.” We follow his temptation for a life in the big city, his decline and fall and his return to his roots.
Ebony McClain and Rhonda Freya English, as Woman One and Woman Two, are a Greek chorus backing our leading man. They move effortlessly from character to character, with just a hint of costume change but with a wealth of vocal expertise.
The scenery consists of a bare stage, some platforms, an old rocking chair and some crates. This is a play we have come to HEAR much more than SEE, and the cast weaves a spell of language around us. It doesn’t seem unusual when an actor abandons dialogue for blank verse; the move from one to the other is so effortless that it seems quite natural.
In the capable hands of Director Gary Anderson, the actors deliver performances of such simple integrity that the audience is hooked on the story from the start. The play runs without intermission, and you won’t miss it. One might hear a gentle laugh or a knowing sigh, but not the rustle of restless theater patrons.
“Home” Staged Thursday through Sunday by Plowshares Theatre Company at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit, through Nov. 9. Tickets: $20. 313-872-0279. www.plowshares.org.
The Bottom Line: The program’s cover reads, “Theatre That Uplifts the Soul;” that’s a promise fulfilled.