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Review: CHARLES DICKENS' GREAT EXPECTATIONS at Irish Classical Theatre

Review: CHARLES DICKENS' GREAT EXPECTATIONS at Irish Classical Theatre

A New Vision for An Old Classic

The holiday season often brings about classic Christmas stories being retold and Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL is usually number one on most producer's short list. Instead, Buffalo's Irish Classical Theatre Company is presenting Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS in a newer version by Neil Bartlett. And while the brief Christmas theme is glossed over, the familiar characters still are ripe for this creative theatrical evening.

Director Chris Kelly may have chosen Bartlett's version because it streamlines the often long and twisting plot quite well with a manageable sized cast. The Gothic comic-drama is overflowing with the types of characters Dickens is known for-- an impoverished youth who goes on to rise in the social structure despite many adversities, some evil doers, a creepy elderly sage, and some very rich upper crust types. While this formula could be descriptive of OLIVER TWIST, it is also the backbone of this story of another youngster, Pip, whose parents and 5 siblings all are dead save for one brutal overbearing sister, Mrs. Joe.

Dickens (and Bartlett) create a dark unhappy life for Pip, who meets Magwitch, a mysterious shackled man in the cemetery on Christmas Eve. Fearing for his life, he saves this on-the-run criminal, and his good deed fashions the story of good over evil. One of Dickens' most intriguing of characters is the decrepit old woman, Miss Havishman, who beckons Pip with money to her home for her pure folly. There he falls in love with her young adopted daughter, Estella. But disparities in social class prohibit a true love. Now enter a mysterious benefactor who drops loads of cash in Pip's lap and entices him to the frenzied streets of London to become a gentleman. The convoluted details unfold and the finale is best left to be seen in the theatre itself.

Long studied in English Literature classes, Dickens' opinions and social commentary can be felt at every turn. There is always a sense of mystery and the unknown as the play unfolds, leaving the audience to wonder where this is all leading. Here he challenges the viewer to imagine how a lowly life can be changed, all with endless amounts of cash. And with those funds, what expectations does the lucky recipient have for himself and his future. The folly of youth and wealth is not always as it seems, and Pip's journey becomes circuitous and challenging. But his inherent good prevails and morality can triumph.

RJ Voltz is given the herculean task of playing Pip from childhood to adulthood and does a fine job. Hardly ever leaving the stage, Voltz has an eternal youthfulness that copes well the challenges that life lies before him. He eases effortlessly through some complicated staging laid out by Kelly. His bewildered innocence transforms into a lovesick teenager and later a confused young man. Mr. Voltz makes the journey believable at every step.

Charmagne Chi is simply a riot as his sister Mrs. Joe, full of spit and gumption, with a brash cockney delivery. Later her take on the clerk Wemmick proves that this gal has acting chops to spare.

Adam Yellen turns in a great performance as Joe Gargery, the poor Blacksmith. But he truly shines as Jaggers, the London attorney who doles out the money from our mysterious benefactor. Yellen has a great sense of timing, often paired with a clipped delivery that screamed of no nonsense English sensibility.

Chris Hatch, who is making his ICTC debut, gives a polished performance as pivotal character Magwitch. In this juicy role, Hatch instills great fear in Pip with his sniveling manor and threatening tone. Hatch attacks his role with glee and upon his return in ACT II, his acts of redemption are heartfelt and palpable.

Josephine Hogan gets to don the proverbial tattered wedding gown as Miss Havisham. She is at her best when she cackles or shrieks, for this old woman should be played with an air of mental instability and senility. After all, in her mind, time has stopped at the exact moment she was jilted on her wedding day. Hogan seems to be enjoying the herself, but at times I hoped for more mystery, especially upon her first meeting with Pip.

Lisette DeJesus captures the essence of the young Estella, a girl whose life is cloaked in mystery. Having been raised by Havishman, it is not far fetched to believe she also would have a warped sense of reality. When the two later become dressed in similar clothing, it's clear that young Estella is not destined for a happy life herself.

Matt Refermat is playing the perfect fop, as Pip's friend and confidante Herbert Pocket. With an undertone of sexual tension, Mr. Refermat brings a comic presence that happily lightens many of the darker themes of this period play. A funny nod to the musical OLIVER came as Refermat entered humming "Who Will Buy," holding a basket of fresh produce.

Thomas Evans plays many roles with a sprite and imperious presence, whether as Mr. Pumblechook or Sarah Pocket. Young ICTC Apprentice Christian Hines holds his own in the many small roles her plays, most effectively as the villain Compeyson.

In his program notes, Chris Kelly speaks of exploring the piece as a memory play, where Pip's story could be told with the cast playing multiple roles. In his now signature style, Kelly uses the cast as props, sound effects, and extras when needed. Along with Costume Designer Vivian Del Bello, the time period is left vague, with some modern dress combined with more period specific pieces of clothing and hats. An edgy quality of London urban grunge can be found with the black boots, jeans, hair styles and donning of contemporary sunglasses. The overall effect, along with some music choices by The Cure and The Smiths somehow makes the piece more relatable for current audiences, instead of a stuffy period piece. When Pip first ventures into the streets of London, the frenzied bustle spilled out into the audience making everyone on edge with it's pace.

Set Designer Collin Ranney has placed many two leveled platforms around the page that work remarkably well as the cast is in near constant motion to help delineate the needed setting. Kelly uses the space in every imaginable way. While the staging at times could be overly busy, the end product was appreciated. These 19th century stories can drone on, and the first act of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is full of a great deal of lengthy exposition. Luckily the second act brings many more revelations and resolutions. The highly talented cast was without a weak link and with Kelly's clever direction, made the telling of this classic story fitting for 2022.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS plays through December 11, 2022. Contact irishclassical.com for more information



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From This Author - Michael Rabice

Michael Rabice has over  40 years of experience attending plays, musicals and opera all over the world. He is a frequent performer in opera and has appeared with the Glimmerglass Opera, A... (read more about this author)


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