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Theatre Review (LA): Great Expectations Adapted by Neil Bartlett at A Noise Within

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One of the highly anticipated plays of A Noise Within’s final season at their old location in Glendale (a new theatre is due to open in Pasadena in the fall of 2011) was the new adaptation of Great Expectations by Neil Bartlett. The company’s first production of Great Expectations, from 1996, was a huge hit, won many awards, and ended up being reprised over three seasons. The production solidified the company’s reputation as one of the leading ensemble groups in the Los Angeles area. Following the success of Neil Bartlett’s Oliver Twist, Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and his wife Julia Rodriguez-Elliot decided to include this new version in the current season, again becoming co-directors of the epic drama. Unfortunately this version does not live up to the high water mark of the previous one.

The main problem I found with this version is that it leaves huge amounts of the story out, making room for elaborate staging effects by the two directors. I actually found it difficult to follow the story, especially when events were referenced, such as Pip’s harsh treatment of Joe and Pip’s desire for Biddy, which we, the audience, never experienced. We didn’t understand why Pip apologized for the way he treated Joe when we never saw Pip treat him badly. We never got to see what a cad and brute Bentley Drummle was when he is played by sweet Mitch Edmonds, who is an excellent actor but wrong for this part.

I also found the staging busy, and it did not clarify the story. We wonder just who were the Greek chorus-like characters in masks that seem to be in many scenes to echo dialogue and move screens about. Masks did not seem right for Dickens. Unfortunately, where the directors and writer were loyal to the book was mainly in the rather tepid ending when Pip and Estella shake hands and say they will be friends. I am rather partial to David Lean’s dramatic, albeit made-up ending of Estella sitting in Miss Havisham’s chair and Pip tearing down the curtains to prevent her from becoming like Havisham.

There were some terrific performances however: the aforementioned Mitch Edmonds as Mr. Pumblechook and Sarah Pocket, a wonderful Deborah Strang as Miss Havisham, Daniel Reichert as a frightening Magwitch, and the superb performance by Jason Dechert as Pip.

Great Expectations plays in rep with Blithe Spirit and Measure for Measure at A Noise Within until Dec 19th.

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