Review: OSF’s ‘Great Expectations’

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Benjamin Bonenfant as Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ Photo: Jenny Graham.

As the 2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival kicks off its season with four shows (and seven more to open between now and late summer), the trend this year seems to be shows that challenge up the norm, fiddle with audience comfort-levels, and defy tradition.

But that’s not true for every show, and frankly, that’s kind of nice.

The most traditional of all the newly opened OSF shows is a world premiere adaptation of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations,’ which has never been an easy story to adapt. Most movie versions choose to focus on the gothic elements—the graveyard, the spooky house, the crazy lady in a tattered wedding dress—and let the emotional core of the story, in which a young boy learning what it means to be a good man, fall by the wayside.

In this lovely, emotionally grounded, truly beautiful adaptation by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper, the flashier elements are all represented, though Metropulos (who also directs) uses a vast, mostly bare stage to strong effect, cleverly providing one or two visual prompts—fog in the graveyard, a flash of red light during a climactic fire—and allows the audience’s imaginations to fill in much of the detail. The heavy lifting here is done not my a sense of visual spectacle, but by the powerhouse poetry of Dickens’ words, and the brilliant performances of a large, tone-perfect cast.

Pip (played as a boy by Bohdi Johnson, then by Benjamin Bonenfant) is an orphan, apprenticed to a kindly blacksmith (Al Espinosa) but constantly reminded of his social position by his abusive older sister (Erica Sullivan). After an encounter in the graveyard with a terrifying escaped convict (Derick Lee Wheeden, magnificent), Pip steals food to feed the criminal, an act he sees as sinful and cowardly, setting up an internal moral fracture that he will wrestle with for the rest of his life.

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Photo: Jenny Graham.

It’s that moral question—“When is an act of cowardice or cruelty also an act of kindness, and does the part erase the bad, or vice versa?”—that is at core of Dickens’ story, and the adapters wisely embrace the question at every turn.

After Pip is hired to be the playmate of the wealthy Estella (Flora Chavez, then Nemuna Ceesay), who is the ward of the mysterious Miss Haversham (an excellent Judith Marie-Bergan), Pip soon falls in love, and believing himself to be unworthy, sets his sites on becoming a gentleman, rich and deserving enough of the beautiful Estella. Pip expectations are given a boost when the stern, disapproving lawyer Mr. Jaggers (Michael Elich, perfection) appears to offer the young man an opportunity in the form of a large monetary bequest from a secret benefactor, Pip’s journey into manhood is set on a series of unexpected courses.

Eschewing (with a few acceptable exceptions) the kind of showy, melodramatic performance Dickens is often treated to, Metropulos’s actors are first and foremost real people, and we see the broken hearts and fearful dreams that motivate them. The play is long (just under three hours) but is worth the time spent. Lovingly crafted, full of rich and transporting relationships, this ‘Great Expectations’ is one of the best and smartest stage adaptations of Dickens’ to come along in quite some time.

★★★★ (out of five stars)

Click ‘Here‘ to read full review in the Pacific Sun

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