GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Arden): Exceeds all expectations

Josh Carpenter (left) as Pip and Sally Mercer as Miss Havisham in the Arden Theatre Company’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Josh Carpenter (left) as Pip and Sally Mercer as Miss Havisham in the Arden Theatre Company’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Forget everything you ever knew about the Charles Dickens classic. With a perfect combination of passion, pride, storytelling, and imagination, the Arden Theatre Company’s production of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a thrilling night of theater.

Pip (Josh Carpenter) is a young orphan “raised by hand” (picture a mimed slap) by his older sister (Sally Mercer) and her blacksmith husband (Lindsay Smalling). As he seeks to raise his station to that of a gentleman, Pip encounters a raft of classically Dickensian characters: a convict, an elderly woman still clad in the wedding dress from a wedding which never happened, the cold-hearted love of his life, an urbane lawyer, a mysterious benefactor, a spider of a man, and over 30 more characters—all played by six actors in the two and a half hours of this superbly choreographed theatrical masterpiece. By the end of the show, Pip rediscovers his true self and realizes that life is not about finding success or being a wealthy gentleman, but the relationships you make with the people you encounter to get you there.

Josh Carpenter as Pip and Brian McCann as Magwitch in Arden Theatre Company's production of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Josh Carpenter as Pip and Brian McCann as Magwitch in Arden Theatre Company’s production of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Josh Carpenter is a pleasure to watch; he brings wonder, innocence, and new life to his Pip. Other than Carpenter, each “narrator” has perhaps ten different roles, some polar opposites of each other. Brian McCann shows remarkable skill and flexibility in such characters as the convict Magwitch and the lawyer Mr. Jaggers. Lindsay Smiling’s portrayals make us love his characters (the humble blacksmith Joe, the publicly unflinching but privately kind-hearted Mr Wemmick), even those we love to hate (the dourly pompous Bentley Drummle). Doug Hara provides wonderful ensemble work, seamlessly transitioning between many personas. Sally Mercer gives some of the most memorable performances in the piece, playing a range of vastly different characters, including Pip’s abusive sister and the spurned and spiteful Miss Havisham. Compared to the rest of the cast, Kate Czajkowski disappoints; she struggles to differentiate between her characters, and her Estella (Pip’s unobtainable love) is at times wooden rather than emotionally suppressed.

Timothy R. Mackabee’s minimalist stage design (like a country barn) gives director Matthew Decker and choreographer Scott McPheeters an adaptable canvas on which to bring forth the mesmerizing staging. . Atmospheric lighting (Thom Weaver) and sound (Rick Sims) add to the theatrical magic. Costumes, designed by Olivera Gajic, are gorgeous to look at and are easily removed for insanely quick changes, making the transitions between characters identifiable and flawless.

Gale Childs Daly’s adaptation captures the delightful characters and touching story of Dickens’s novel. The deft choreography and spot-on acting bring it to life, creating an entrancing theatrical piece to exceed even our greatest expectations. [Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street] October 23-December 14; ardentheatre.org.

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About the author

Nicholas Ryan

Nicholas Ryan is an experienced actor and director; he has won several awards for his stage work including the Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award. He attends college in pursuit of a BFA in Theatre Directing at the University of The Arts right here in Philadelphia.