Creative, professional and energetic, A Noise Within's adaptation of "Great Expectations" is a force to be reckoned with. The cast and crew of Glendale's classical theater company take on the Charles Dickens novel, brilliantly adapted by playwright Neil Bartlett and shrewdly directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, with their usual artistic flair. It is a study in emotional and sensorial manipulation with a pace that borders on frenetic.
Dickens initially wrote "Great Expectations" in serial form for his magazine "All the Year Round," so the choppy shifts in locale are inherent to the story. Bartlett and the Elliotts drive home this idea by having frequent and busy scene changes throughout the play. Almost every piece is on wheels, and they come clamoring in from various places.
Sound (designed by Andrew Villaverde) plays a big part in this production, with metallic banging and jarring foot stomps, as well as mournful whispers and loud cries from individual characters and from the highly theatrical chorus. The lighting (by Ken Booth) is dramatic, the costumes (Angela Balogh Calin) are sumptuous, the music (Doug Newell) is forceful, and the ensemble acting is pretty much flawless.
Pip, played by Jason Dechert, is at the center of "Great Expectations." He is like the sun around which planets, with varying gravitational pulls, orbit. Dechert does a fine job interpreting all the phases of Pip's life—as a scared little boy on the marsh, as a bewildered teen in the home of Miss Havisham, as a snooty, entitled young gentleman and finally as a man who can forgive. In reading the playwright's notes, Bartlett saw Pip as ravaged and angry. But I did not see Dechert's Pip this way. Yes, the orphaned Pip is emotionally manipulated by the forces in his life, none of which can be trusted as one trusts a parent, but he seems fairly mature and self-composed. If that's what he was going for, it worked.
The planets orbiting Pip vary in nature. One is skittish and unpredictable (Jill Hill as Mrs. Joe), one dim but loyal (Geoff Elliott as Joe Gargery), another stoic and proud (Jaimi Paige as Estella) and the largest planet, shrouded in mystery is of course, Miss Havisham (Deborah Strang.) Who doesn't love the character of Miss Havisham? It is a part Strang was born to play with her sly smile as if she's pulling puppet strings. The costuming, lighting and make-up on her is wonderfully eerie, almost opalescent. And the way her gauzy wedding dress always gets a little too close to an open flame on stage portends her horrible end.
The actors, some playing two or more characters, have a breathless quality about them, especially the spirited Hill. They are often in a mad rush. This is a deliberate dramatic technique, perhaps to echo the passage of time, another important symbol in the great novel. It must be deliberate because some scenes are strangely slow, such as the magnificent ballroom scene that reminded us of the ballroom scene in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. Admittedly, some of the other theatrics in the play are overly gimmicky, but it all leads to a greater good.
The budget for scenery was not enormous on this production, probably due to the fact that A Noise Within's resources are going to their brand-new space in Pasadena. But budgets don't stop this ensemble. All they need is their inherent creativity, passion, fearlessness and a good dose of athleticism.
Lisa Dupuy is a lover of classic literature. She is currently in three book clubs and can be reached at LDupuy@aol.com.
What: Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations"
When: In repertory through Dec. 19
Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale
Tickets: $42 to $46
Contact: (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1