Syracuse Stage opens 44th season with ‘Great Expectations’

Review: A rotating band of narrators help usher Charles Dickens' classic to the modern stage.

Not one, but two plays appear within Syracuse Stage’s production of Great Expectations, and the various levels of drama do not stop there.

In one of those scenes, which fans of Charles Dickens may recall from the original source material, young hero Pip attends a production of Hamlet. So terrible is this prince of Denmark that his London audience chimes in on the debate whether he should “be” or “not be,” eliciting laughs from the true audience.

Questions - and expectations - may have similarly been weighing on the minds of Syracuse Stage leadership during the opening night of Great Expectations.

The adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic opened Syracuse Stage's 44th season (a number so important to the Syracuse community that former No. 44 Floyd Little was in attendance Friday). Great expectations is also notably the theme for the entire season, which is being led by new artistic director Bob Hupp and new managing director Jill Anderson.

The fully-narrated coming-of-age story that is Great Expectations is updated for the stage by remaining just what it’s always been, but with an avant-garde twist.

A band of five narrators carry the performance, switching costumes and accents to take on other roles. They sometimes speak in unison, adding drama and urgency to young Pip’s thoughts, or build sentences off each other, often for comedic effect. Only Robbie Simpson stays in one role, although he does portray both the adolescent and adult Pip.

While Dickens is well-known for his literary success - from holiday novella A Christmas Carol to historical novel A Tale of Two Cities - and start in newspaper writing, few may realize he was also obsessed with drama. An avid theatergoer, Dickens even attempted a life as an actor, according to University of London theater lecturer Sophie Nield, but a head cold kept him from the audition.

So Dickens settled for life on the page, and imbued his works with theater folks. Although playwright Gale Childs Daly did not create her adaptation of Great Expectations until recently, the existing connection to the theater and appreciation for drama aided in the transition from book to stage.

However, those who last encountered Great Expectations in their ninth grade English class or never before may want to review the Victorian-era source material or a synopsis beforehand. This is not because the production is poorly done, but just because Dickens’ story, which easily turns from comedy to drama or tragedy, is a little odd to begin with.

Those who have no idea what they’re getting into may be a little confused at the first sight of eccentric doomed bride Miss Havisham, who permanently appears in a tattered wedding gown. Alternatively, those who have already met Miss Havisham will delight in seeing her legendary dress take shape in all its distressed and gauzy glory.

Other colorful characters - like escaped convict Abel Magwitch, cold but beautiful Estella, and warm but unsophisticated Joe the blacksmith - help light an otherwise dark and gloomy stage. The set is stationary, save for movement of tables and chairs, keeping the focus on the fast-paced clip of words coming from the narrators.

The shared roles make the production more affordable, not to mention add a pyschological element as audiences can speculate on connections between characters. The constant movement of roles is at times confusing, but the ability to perform a number of roles with few breaks is admirable and each narrator easily makes several characters memorable.

Ultimately, though, this is a show for lovers of Dickens. And, aJoe the blacksmith might say, what larks they'll have at Great Expectations.

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