Fingersmith, which opened Sunday afternoon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre, offers a lush combination of gothic bodice ripper and Victorian mystery with a touch of postmodern meta-theater thrown in for good measure.
Adapted from the popular novel by British author Sarah Waters, the story works as a play – more or less – and will probably be one of the audience favorites for the season, if for no other reason than the fact it offers more erotic zing, highlighted by a modest touch of nudity, than most productions you’ll see at OSF.
Playwright Alexa Junge, whose day job is writing scripts for popular television (think The West Wing, Friends, Sex in the City) has condensed Waters’ sprawling feminist tale into a mere three hours of theater time. To do so requires such devices as signs that proclaim “Twenty years ago” or “Six months later” to help us keep the narrative straight. It also calls on the play’s characters to address the audience on a regular basis. This story, after all, originated as a novel, that most interior of art forms, and the quickest way inside characters’ heads is to have them stop doing what they’re doing and tell us what they’re thinking.
If this sounds like criticism of the play, well it is – but only in the sense of helping locate what Junge is up to, which is both something more and less than a traditional well-made play.
The story is set in late 19th century London, a Dickensian world – in fact, for a moment after the play starts, you’ll feel like you’ve landed somewhere in Oliver Twist – and introduces us to two young women: Sue Trindler, a pickpocket (or “fingersmith”) played by Sara Bruner, and a pale, unworldy heiress, Maude Lilly, played by Erica Sullivan, who lives with her bibliophile uncle.
Their two opposing worlds are cleverly represented on the left and right sides, respectively, of Christopher Acebo’s darkly realist set. It is divided straight up the middle by a line, which becomes a boundary between various realms: upstairs and downstairs, rich and poor, sane and insane.
Into both women’s lives comes Richard “Gentleman” Rivers (Elijah Alexander), a con man who enlists Sue in his plot to steal the fortune that is coming to Maude, and the plot is off and running, bringing about an unexpected relationship between the two women.
Ah, the plot. This play has very, very much plot. Perhaps even an excessive amount of plot. By somewhere in Act II – this play is presented in three acts, with two intermissions – there is so much identity confusion, people switched with each other at birth, and elaborately layered evil schemes that the story begins to resemble something by, no kidding, Shakespeare himself.
In fact, the play depends so much on the plot that I have given my sacred oath as a critic not to divulge any information that might serve as a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet read the novel. Thank God, as I’m not sure I could ever have explained the plot and its resolution in less than many thousands of words.
Despite all this complexity, which sometimes drew laughter at the opening even when the script might have been intended to be serious (though I wasn’t quite sure about this), Fingersmith offers an enjoyable evening of good theater, with its soft R-rated material and its dark underpinnings, despite a lack of much in the way of lingering substance to the story.
Bruner, Sullivan and Alexander create a fine dramatic framework for this page-turner of a tale. Go enjoy it – and don’t spoil the ending for your friends.
February 21 – July 9
Angus Bowmer Theatre
By Alexa Junge | Based on the novel by Sarah Waters | Directed by Bill Rauch | World Premiere