The Barter Blog


"Great Expectations" is Quintessential Theatre Review by Bonny Gable

September 20, 2018

Barter Theatre’s Great Expectations is the quintessential theatrical experience. In Catherine Bush’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic we witness a story told onstage that is as stirring and enthralling as it is entertaining and instructive. Everything good theatre should be. Bush has constructed a drama that captivates a modern audience. All essential elements of Dickens’s tale are there and every nuance is explored, but everything is packaged in such a way that the story soars at a riveting pace. We dare not look away lest some exciting turn of events be missed.

Entrusted to Katy Brown’s imaginative direction, this theatrical gem has been honed into an exhilarating literary joyride. We truly ‘live’ the story with Pip, and feel as though his trials, fears, thrills and disappointments are ours as well. Brown’s ingenious staging and intelligent guidance of the actors have spawned richly developed characters who render an unforgettable telling of this saga of hardearned life lessons.

As a young orphaned boy in rural England, Pip dreams of casting off his humble beginnings as a blacksmith’s apprentice to become a learned and wealthy gentleman. A mysterious patron bestows upon him the means to achieve these “great expectations” and he readily leaves home and family behind. But along this journey he discovers that the world that once bedazzled him has a dark and treacherous underbelly. Too late he realizes that the loved ones he shunned because of foolish pride are the true treasures in his life.

The essence of Pip’s story is evident in Hana Lee’s brilliant set design. The stage is scattered with collections of chairs, tables and benches stacked higgledy-piggledy into precarious pillars that climb toward an ornate false ceiling. Anchored by corners of stone bases supporting rustic wood paneling, the set symbolizes Pip’s tortured attempt to rise from the humble to the grandiose. With clever and fluid manipulation of these props by the actors and Andrew Morehouse’s inventive lighting design leading the way, we travel through the numerous locations of Pip’s journey.

Although not a musical per se, this play is enriched by Dax Dupuy’s original incidental music. Executed flawlessly on the cello and violin by Bethany Dawson (who also plays Clara) the instrumental underscoring adds an unexpected emotional dimension to the drama. Dupuy also incorporates wordless but hauntingly beautiful choral interludes sung in perfect a cappella style by the acting ensemble. The effect is stunning, blending dialogue and action in a unique fashion.

Shaan Sharma is a winning choice to portray the invincible Pip. The energy Sharma brings to the stage and his capacity to handle the high and low curveballs thrust upon Pip are amazing to watch. Brandy Drzymkowski is an excellent match as his love interest Estella. The two play off each other with fire and ice, as is appropriate for these star-crossed lovers. The remaining cast — comprised of Katherine Lyle, Justin Tyler Lewis, Nicholas Piper, and Rusty Allen — work together in an impressive ensemble spirit, displaying a tour de force of character transformations. All give stellar performances in their respective roles, but a special accolade goes to Allen as the bewitched and bothered Miss Havisham.

Clever costume design by Lee Alexander Martin gives us a perfect taste of the early 19th century while serving the rapid pace of the story. With a very few pieces added or subtracted to a base costume, a character’s clothing economically but clearly distinguishes their personality and station in life. The wealthy have richly tailored coats while laborers don rough-hewn garments. Havisham’s bridal gown is appropriately dated and damaged — yellowed and tattered with time, like her soul.

Dickens’ story conjures a lot of feelings and questions — about where we come from, and where we are destined to go. But his message is clear: Do not deny your roots, they are an important part of what cultivated you. Which reminds me of a Stephen Sondheim lyric from Into the Woods: “To get what you want, better keep what you have.” Sondheim must be a fan of Dickens, too.

Great Expectations runs at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA through November 9.

For tickets and information contact 276-628-3991 or www.bartertheatre.com