Chicago Theatre Review
Great Expectations – Strawdog Theatre
It’s a wonderful surprise when a repeat viewing of an excellent production not only remains just as superb, but may actually exceed expectations a full year later. Such is the case with Strawdog Theatre Company’s return engagement of Charles Dickens’ Victorian coming-of-age novel. Told here in an exciting, breathtaking production that’s a testament to the talent of its director, Jason Gerace, the 2013-14 Jeff Award winner for Outstanding Direction, it’s also a credit to the production’s other artists, as well. It reflects highly on Gale Childs Daly’s detailed story theatre adaptation of this sprawling, episodic masterpiece, as well as the fine cast and crew behind both productions. But most importantly, this production is evidence of the energetic, pitch perfect direction Mr. Gerace brings to this piece.
Story theatre is a unique style that combines storytelling with traditional theatre. When it’s good, as in Ms. Daly’s terrific adaptation of Dickens’ popular novel, it’s very good. Pair this fine dramatization with a terrific director who both appreciates the story he has to tell and empathizes with its hero. Gerace has often demonstrated his directorial talent in the past, but in this production he takes his craft to a new level. Here is a production that’s every bit deserving of all the popularity, praise and the prizes that it’s garnered.
Mr. Gerace has, once again, assembled six highly skilled actors for his production. Accomplished primarily through vocal and physical manipulations, dialect changes (thanks to Kathy Logelin’s diligent coaching), and quick-change costuming, created by Brittany Dee Bodley, this tiny cast convinces audiences that they’re a far larger ensemble, portraying more than 40 characters from this epic novel. Indeed, it isn’t until the final curtain that the audience is reminded of the theatrical miracle they’ve just experienced unfolding upon the tiny stage.
Bordered by Joanna Iwanicka’s towering, tome-filled bookshelves, Dickens’ sprawling novel ironically feels intimate. Providing emotional accents, violinist Taryn Rosenquist helps the audience through its journey. The entire cast is, once again, excellent. Talented and likable Mike Tepeli returns as Pip, beginning the play as an innocent young orphan boy, but growing and developing into a young man before our eyes. Cast in the most challenging role, Tepeli is the only actor here portraying a single character. Yet as young Pip profits from each character he encounters, we observe him grow in years and wisdom. The five actors who support Tepeli are equally magnificent: Cody Proctor, terrific in such contrasting roles as the frightening convict Magwich and the comical Pumblechook; Mary Winn Heider, so commanding and formidable as Miss Haversham and Mrs. Joe, while bringing a sad tenderness to Molly; the transcendent actress Amanda Drinkall returning to this production as the cold, beautiful Estella, the sweet, earnest country girl Biddy, and in an assortment of other roles, as well; Paige Smith memorable as, among others, the lovably kind-hearted Joe; and hilarious, versatile Caleb Fullen leaving his mark as Pip’s devoted friend Herbert, in addition to several other very different personages. Each actor shines independently and, as the narrating ensemble, equally blend together beautifully.
This highly recommended production is top notch. Through it, director Jason Gerace accomplishes everything he sets out to do. He tells his story well, infuses Dickens’ saga with spirit, strength and spontaneity and he transports his audience to another world in a journey they’ll be all the richer for taking.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 9-December 20 by Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-528-9696 or by going to www.strawdog.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.