'Curiosity' tells of love, loss and perils of vice
by Terry Loncaric
Charles Dickens' deeply compelling tale of a little girl's sad journey is one of great humanity and pathos. The Lookingglass Theatre captures all of the eccentricities of this story without losing the "heart" of Dickens' visionary tale of heartache, loss, and the perils of poverty and victimization.
Raymond Fox's straightforward adaptation and Tracy Walsh's visually striking direction illuminate all that is tragic and alluring in Dickens' soulful tale of human suffering. "The Old Curiosity Shop" moves with its own elegance, in Walsh's atmospheric staging, and in the actors' emotionally complex performances.
In this story, Nell, a kind-hearted child, is pushed into a dark, adult world when her grandfather gambles away their money. Quilp, a smarmy predator, keeps loaning money to Nell's grandfather, and when Quilp realizes the old man is frail and penniless, he attempts to collect his debt by trying to steal Nell's innocence.
Troy West is weary and tragic as an aging gambler who keeps trying to convince himself he can quit while he remains sadly steeped in his addiction.
Lorri Hamm portrays Nell with a quiet strength that lets us know she never stops hoping for a better life, even when her grandfather fails her, and the adults around her cannot protect her. Nell is a role model for all children held down by poverty and abuse. She is brave and kind, never simpering or helpless.
As Quilp, Nell's nemesis, Thomas Cox is completely deranged, and also, hysterically funny, as a crude, heavy-breathing child molester, who oozes creepiness, but also commands a certain fiendish charm when his eyes sparkle and he gleefully stalks his prey.
Cox gets into the skin of this creepy character, and reveals Quilp is much more than a pedofile with a one-track mind. Quilp is the uncle you hope and pray never watches your child. He is also a metaphor for deep social disparities: a bully who uses his wealth and power to prey upon defenseless children.
Of course, escaping the Quilps of the world was not easy in Dickens' day, and though Nell feels there is safety on the other side of the bridge, she discovers life is riddled with painful discoveries and imminent losses. During their escape from Quilp, Nell and her grandfather tether between a fairy tale, circus world and the crushing realities of homelessness and poverty.
The dialogue between Nell, her grandfather and the bizarre characters they meet during their journey into the English countryside is full of English humor and physical schtick even kids in the audience understand.
Two angry Punch and Judy puppeteers start to behave like their puppets. A dotty English woman dressed like Little Bo Peep reveals she owns wax figures, and tells a strange story about each one. The wax lady is endearing in her eccentricities.
All of the characters seem like they are in a circus but can't find their way to the tent.
In this bizarre human comedy, the actors rise to the difficult challenge of playing multiple roles, nailing down the personality quirks, the physicality, the dialects, and unique comedy rhythms of each larger-than-life character. In his masterful storytelling, Dickens creates a universe that has sinister, sad, and completely silly moments. He mingles moments of complete perversity with acts of unbelievable human kindness. In Dickens' world, there is room for both.
Walsh's staging is sparce and elegant, depending mostly on strong performances to tell the story, but she also uses lighting to create emotionally stirring moments. The stage bursts with shimmering colors at times, but also fades into breathless darkness when the story becomes more sober or haunting. Occasionally, the characters are shown as silhouettes, as they fade into the night and perform balletic dance movements. This helps create striking stage pictures while moving the narrative along.
Through Nell, we have a chance to reflect on how the people we love are sometimes lost, but never forgotten. Lookingglass Theatre peels through the layers of Dickens' tale with a wondrous charm, a deep sense of truth, and sincere, heartfelt performances. If you treasure Dickens, you will want to revisit his stories after seeing this lovingly rendered production.