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Theater review: 'Great Expectations' at A Noise Within

November 16, 2010 |  5:30 pm

MisshavishamVibrant theatricality meets literary fidelity in “Great Expectations” at A Noise Within. Neil Bartlett’s 2007 take on Charles Dickens’ often-adapted classic enlivens prosaic content with dramatic vitality, which its arresting West Coast premiere delivers in spades under the co-direction of Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott.

Hugely popular since first appearing in serial form in 1860 and 1861, the classroom staple has been called Dickens’ greatest novel. Its picaresque scenario features the cultural observations and vivid characters that populate all of Dickens, here welded to a mordant bildungsroman.

That genre, in which a protagonist’s passage from adolescence to maturity informs the narrative, encompasses “Expectations.”  A Noise Within has tackled adaptations of the property often enough before, but this particular edition feels freshly imagined, its dark-hued ambiguities and ironies refracted in the first person through orphaned Phillip Pirrip, better known as Pip (the excellent Jason Dechert).

Elsewhere, adaptor Bartlett telescopes the novel, dropping characters and whole story lines without losing thematic essentials. Dechert’s unaffected Pip narrates as he stumbles toward the titular great expectations, surrounded by an outstanding ensemble that shifts roles and functions with near-Brechtian fervor around the wood-slatted panels and staircase units of designer Kurt Boetcher’s resourceful set.

It opens, as in Dickens, at young Pips’s Christmas Eve run-in with escaped convict Magwitch (the redoubtable Daniel Reichert). This riveting encounter has ramifications that remain obscured until long after Pip enters social spheres far beyond life with his termagant sister (Jill Hill) and Joe (co-director Elliott), her blacksmith husband.

Pipmagwich At the introduction of long-ago-jilted Miss Havisham (a bravura Deborah Strang) and beautiful Estella (Jaimi Paige, ideal), Havisham’s revenge on the male sex, the intrigue percolates, with now-elevated Pip traveling to London as Act 1 ends. Act 2 follows his spendthrift pursuit of Estella, the revelations and reversals building to an enigmatic ending pitched directly between Dickens’ original somber and revised happy conclusions.

Dechert traces young Pip from within, sensitive yet callow, which heightens his adult realizations. Paige similarly underplays Estella’s affectations, the diffidence subtly shaded, and Strang, imposing and pathetic at once, offers a grandly grotesque Havisham.

If Reichert’s incisive Magwitch upstages his dour sergeant, it’s smart counterpointed casting. Hill makes whip-cracking Mrs. Joe and devoted Biddy seem like two different actors, as does Elliott’s kindly Joe and imperious Mr. Jaggers. Stephen Rockwell’s straightforward Herbert Pocket and savage Compeyson uphold this average, while Mitchell Edmonds carries the house, whether bumptious Mr. Pumblechook, dastardly Bentley Drummle or hilarious Sarah Pocket. Darby Bricker, Elizabeth Fabie, Kurt Quinn and Taylor Jackson Ross complete an accomplished slate.

"Great Expectations": A review of A Noise Within's production of "Great Expectations" in the Nov. 17 Calendar section identified Laura Karpman as the composer of the show's original music. Doug Newell composed the music. —

Despite a curious lack of red at Havisham’s climactic conflagration, Ken Booth’s lighting is brilliantly atmospheric. Andrew Villaverde’s multi-directional sound, Laura Karpman’s original music, and even costumer Angela Balogh Calin’s odder choices – ensemble women in Georgian-era tart wear, surreally anachronistic masks – support a unified artistic vision.

Purists may mourn Bartlett’s elisions, but they certainly create an airtight evening. Indeed, the pin-drop silences and gleeful outbursts observed at the reviewed performance suggest that this invigorating account should easily meet an audience’s greatest expectations.

-- David C. Nichols

“Great Expectations,” A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Runs in repertory; see for schedule. Ends Dec. 19. $42 and $46. (818) 240-0910. Running time: 2 hours.

Photos: Top, Deborah Strang plays Miss Havisham in A Noise Within's "Great Expectations." Lower, Daniel Reichert  as Abel Magwitch and Jason Dechert as Pip. Credit: Craig Schwartz