I wasn’t the only one in the audience struggling to stay awake last night during Great Expectations, which made its world premiere Saturday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre.
At both intermission and as we left after the show, I heard countless people joking about their slumbers during the plodding drama, which tries to cram nearly all of the Charles Dickens story of Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham, Jo and Magwitch into a single three-hour narrative.
The new adaptation – this was its world premiere – is the work of OSF veterans Linda Alper and Penny Metropulos, who also directs; in the past, they were behind adaptations of Tracy’s Tiger and The Three Musketeers.
To be a bit generous, staging the Dickens novel has got to be challenging. The book weighs in at about 75 pounds in most of the editions you can buy at the OSF gift shop across the street from the theater, and it must have about 3 billion words in it (actually, more like 183,833, according to CommonplaceBook.com).
Even worse, Dickens wrote it as a serial. So while its has its melodramatic peaks, including that climactic fire, the story is mostly laid out in evenly spaced dribs and drabs. This doesn’t lend itself to coherent stage drama.
The story spans many years in the life of Pip, a Dickensianly poor boy who is mysteriously rescued from poverty by an unknown benefactor, whose identity he, and we, are led to guess at wrongly. He goes on to fall in love with the beautiful young Estella, about whose affections he is equally misguided.
Metropulos and Alper use a common device to condense that broad tale: An on-stage narrator (or, in this case, narrators) to tell large swatches of the story.
This only serves to make the action even less engaging.
Casting is good straight across. Benjamin Bonenfant is fine as Pip; Al Espinosa is loveable as Joe, and Judith-Marie Bergan is downright scary as Miss Havisham. Derrick Lee Weeden plays Magwitch with perfect gusto and grace, and Nemuna Ceesay is nicely icy as the cold-hearted Estella.
All this plays out on a minimalist abstract set by Collette Pollard that is so spare it looks like the stagehands forgot the scenery.
Die-hard Dickens fans may want to see this one; otherwise, should you go, be sure to enjoy a cup of coffee or two in the lobby before you take your seat. And not decaf.