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BWW Review: Masquerade Theatre's GREAT EXPECTATIONS Exceeds Expectations

Dickens Goes Digital

BWW Review: Masquerade Theatre's GREAT EXPECTATIONS Exceeds ExpectationsDickens goes digital in South Jersey-based Masquerade Theatre's production of "Great Expectations".

Charles Dicken's classic novel, "Great Expectations" explores the journey of a young boy, Pip, who grows into a young man, led astray by false assumptions, misplaced hope and misguided goals. However, Pip never loses his innocence and self-awareness. While his path takes many twists and turns, Pip owns his misgivings, and sees the good to find his way forward.

Interpreted for the stage by playwright Gale Childs Daly, the story for "Great Expectations" comes alive through vibrant performances of six actors in true troupe style. While the novel contains more than twenty characters, Daly brings the story to life with Pip, and five narrators who play multiple revolving parts.

Masquerade's production of the Dicken's classic is one of the most complicated virtual productions I have seen in 2020, not only for the challenging script, but for the elaborate "virtual staging" by "Great Expectations" Stage Manager & Tech Director Tommy Balne. Balne's self-proclaimed "virtual staging" gives an innovative, streamlined air to the production. The transitions between actors' entrances and exits and scene transitions are seamless. And the design of the "virtual staging" looks both professional and almost pre-recorded. Balne explained in a post-show talk-back that the actors perform the show in a Zoom call. Balne then streams the production into a third-party software where he can design where he wants to videos to appear on the screen. Then, he streams that into the Crowdcast platform where the audience views the production. The software is already laid out, but the streaming from each platform flows in real time. This method is innovative for the digital theatre medium and provides more creative freedom for Balne to spotlight certain videos, etc. I particularly liked the choice of having the narrators in a black and white filter.

Balne is also able to add in sound effects and music through this way of streaming which interestingly the actors don't even hear while they are acting.

"Great Expectations" is a risky show for Masquerade Theatre to produce in their inaugural year, especially in the virtual landscape. "Great Expectations" director Megan Knowlton Balne writes in her director's note in the playbill that "When Dickens wrote Great Expectations, I doubt he envisioned his novel being performed theatrically with six webcams, high speed internet, video conferencing and a designed broadcasting software." But somehow the production works.

Dickens' story is complex with often times convoluted language, and while the pacing in the original novel is slow, Gale Childs Daly's stage adaptation is brisk, moving quickly through the timeline, compacting Dicken's 544 page novel (and an entire character's life story) into a two and a half hour, three act play.

Jeanette Balne created a tasteful costume design for the production that alluded to the Dickens era without being full-blown historical in eccentricity. And the director was smart about blending all of the production elements into a cohesive show. Though all of the production elements individually were complicated, much like the practiced moves of a trained dancer, they came together to create a seemingly effortless and overall simple production that highlighted the actors and the text in a balanced performance.

While many other digital productions keep actors seated in one spot speaking directly into the webcam, only focusing on the chest-up, "Great Expectations" director Balne had a great idea to make this show stand out by using a wider camera angle and more traditional actor "staging". Balne decided to have more of the actors' bodies present on the screen (down to their knees in most cases). The cast of Masquerade Theatre's production used a lot of physicality and gesturing and even blocking in their storytelling. Though other virtual theatres shy away from such movement, Balne utilizes the actor's bodies well though they are confined to a small space and small area of play on the computer screen. Balne even enlisted troupe member Allison Korn to double-up as a fight choreographer for the production. Korn brings creativity to virtual stage combat, and the fight scenes in the show play almost as if the actors are in the same space at the same time.

At the end of the day, no matter how extraordinary or innovative technically a production is, the core of the show is the actors. Director Balne said herself that "There's no way to do a show without compelling actors." Masquerade has definitely cast a fantastic troupe. I give props (pun intended) to the actors for their commitment to such a challenging piece, their sustained energy through a long performance, their impressive amount of memorization, and their abrupt transitioning in their characterizations. There are many times in the play where an actor switches characters, and subsequently their British or Cockney accent, in the matter of only a few lines. Watching the actors perform these quick switches all in real time is remarkable to watch and highlights their versatility. Though the actors were not performing in the same space, and performed socially distant, their pacing and chemistry was remarkable.

Masquerade Theatre veteran performer Courtney Bundens plays the iconic "young fellow of great expectations" and perfectly encapsulates the wide-eyed Pip's innocence and curiosity. Bunden drives the play, constantly being on camera, and acts as a great scene partner to their castmates Tony Killian, Allison Korn, Alex Levitt, and Beatrice Alonna.

Daly breaks up the drama of Pip's life story with a silly rendition of "Hamlet". I personally always enjoy seeing a play within a play, and Jake Hufner's portrayal of Mr. Wopsle's portrayal of Hamlet was a highlight of the performance (especially Hufner's reenactment of the Prince of Denmark's death). Much like Pip, "I laughed in spite of myself".

Pip while watching Wopsle's performance describes the play as "So very slow. So very weary." But that is the opposite of Masquerade's production. Masquerade Theatre's production of this Dicken's classic not only met but exceeded expectations.

Masquerade originally intended this show to be performed in-person and in the round. I, for one, hope one day to see that production with this cast under the direction of Mrs. Balne.

Masquerade Theatre's final showing of "Great Expectations" is this Saturday December 19th at 8pm.

For more information about Masquerade Theatre, visit https://www.masqueradetheatre.org/

Image Credit: Courtesy of Masquerade Theatre



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From This Author Amber Kusching