Chicago Theatre Review
Charles Dickens Goes to India
Great Expectations – Remy Bumppo
Adapted by playwright and screenwriter Tanika Gupta, this, one of Charles Dickens’ most popular novels, has been reimagined, shifting the story from Victorian England to mid-19th century Calcutta, during the British Raj. Although this three hour drama plays as if it was always intended to be a story set in India, the dialogue is actually taken primarily from the original English novel and only peppered with a handful of specific references to the era of Crown Rule in India. It becomes, even more, a play about culture, race, class and entitlement.
Dickens’ 1861 novel, originally serialized in a popular weekly periodical, is the story of a young orphan named Pip. The novel opens at night in an eerie graveyard as the 12-year-old boy is suddenly accosted by an escaped convict named Magwitch. Little does Pip know that this terrifying encounter, and his subsequent kindness to the fleeing prisoner, will ultimately bring him unexpected good fortune. The book, and this play, populated with a colorful cast of unique characters, follows Pip’s education and growth, from a poverty-stricken orphan into a cultured youth who aspires to rise above his class and become a man of means, a true gentleman. But in doing so, Pip awakens his own sense of pride in his Indian roots. The story is rife with class and societal contrast, hostility and violent altercations, unrequited love, rejection, revenge and death. And, of course, there are great expectations from everyone. But throughout all of this, the triumph of good over evil commands the theme of this play.
This collaboration between Remy Bumppo and Silk Road Rising Theatre Companies mirrors Ms. Gupta’s silent partnership with the genius of Charles Dickens. Her play, brilliantly co-directed by Lavina Jadhwani and Nick Sandys, feels as if it was always meant to take place in Colonial India. Staged with sensitivity and passion, seasoned with the sounds and colors of the Far East, this production is as captivating as it is fascinating. While the story’s familiar to most theatergoers, Ms.Gupta’s script cleverly and flawlessly transfers the characters and locales to the Indian Empire. Yeaji Kim’s fluid setting, occasionally accented with her own moody visual projections, shifts seamlessly from the country to urban Calcutta. Lindsey Lyddan has designed a lighting plot for the intimate venue that makes great use of both light and shadow. An evocative sound palette created by Spencer Batho completes the immersion into Gupta’s world. Elsa Hiltner’s lovely period costumes help create a feeling of time and place, while Eva Breneman’s superb dialect coaching makes every character sound authentic.
A marvelous cast of twelve talented actors, many of whom portray several different characters throughout this episodic tale, are all top-notch. Told from the viewpoint of the story’s main character, Anand Bhatt plays Pip with warmth and wonder. His wide-eyed innocence, devoted adoration and spirited determination feel completely honest. Pip’s journey from naive boy to educated gentleman is a trip worth taking, under Bhatt’s gentle guidance. Anish Jethmalani is strong and proud, yet affectionate and generous, as Joe Gargery. He portrays the loving, kind-hearted husband of Pip’s ill-tempered sister, who’s played with venom and humor by Alka Nayyar. Biddy, Pip’s young childhood Indian friend, who exposes him to the joys of reading while masking her love, is played with dignity and concern by Rasika Ranganathan.
Lovely Linda Gillum, always a consummate treat in any role she undertakes, is practically unrecognizable as the eccentric and reclusive Miss Havisham. Forever clad in her yellowing wedding gown and veil, Gillum is mysteriously formidable and powerful in this iconic role. As beautiful Estella, Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Netta Walker is appropriately cool, cruel and in control. Groomed by her benefactor to break men’s hearts, Walker seems to practically float about the stage, like an all-powerful mythical spirit. In her final scenes we see that Estella understands she’s become a victim, as well as a tormentor. As Magwitch, Robert D. Hardaway is fierce and frightening, but with a good heart buried beneath his prison rags. Always a delight, Lane Anthony Flores is the picture of joy and giddy optimism as Pip’s English Calcutta roommate, Herbert Pocket. Flores plays this young man of means with joy, affability and childlike abandon.
Roderick Peeples is officious and the epitome of the English gentleman as lawyer Jaggers. Raj Bond nicely plays Pip’s quirky and humorous Uncle Pumblechook, as well as an eloquent street poet, forever pontificating on the streets of Calcutta. Tommy Malouf portrays two bullies: another escaped convict, named Compeyson, as well as the coarse, unintelligent rival for Estella, Bentley Drummle. Handsome Siddhartha Rajan plays the polished John Wemmick, Jaggers’ clerk, who earnestly helps look after Pip once he arrives in the big city. In addition, all of the actors do double duty in other various roles, among them, playing street vendors, musicians or beggars.
Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of one of Charles Dickens’ most popular novels is more of a reframing of the story than an actual rewrite. The playwright finds the similarities between Victorian England and British Raj India, especially in society’s treatment of class and race. Education and money play a big part in this story of good versus evil. Though a bit choppy and lengthy, especially in the second act, this production remains a worthy introduction to Dickens’ original masterpiece, but spiced up with Gupta’s own novel spin.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 11-July 2 by Remy Bumppo and Silk Road Rising at Pierce Hall in the historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-857-1234, ext. 201, or by going to www.GreatExpectationsPlay.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.