Company members mentioned in this article: Raymond Fox, Laura Eason, Heidi Stillman, Troy West, Thomas J Cox, Lisa Tejero, Tracy Walsh and Brian Sidney Bembridge
by Chris Jones
May 9, 2006
Raymond Fox, who conceived the ambitious new Lookingglass Theatre adaptation of "The Old Curiosity Shop," has a deliciously Dickensian demeanor. Handsome in a Victorian kind of way, Fox has a perpetually furrowed brow, an earnest, slightly strained voice and melancholy eyebrows. So when this actor-writer starts to tell us the sad tale of Little Nell Trent, we're sucked back to the imaginative world of Charles Dickens as surely as when, at Christmas, we hear the immortal line "Marley was dead, to begin with."
In terms of contemporary popular appeal, of course, "The Old Curiosity Shop" is no "A Christmas Carol." And the source novel is many times longer--making it a tough and necessary task to decide which of the many Dickensian digressions to omit.
But to its immense credit, Lookingglass (Fox adapted with help from Laura Eason and Heidi Stillman) succeeds not only in bringing this meandering and complicated tale to theatrical life with considerable fullness, but it also negotiates and makes some reasoned contemporary sense of the mawkish sentimentality of Little Nell, one of those perfectly angelic Victorian girls destined only to suffer. A writer paid by the serialized piece, Dickens was no fool. He knew how to get his readers' tears flowing without rocking patriarchal boats.
This uneven show, frankly, is at its best when Fox, who plays The Single Gentleman and the show's main narrative voice, is standing on the stage framing events. He grounds the piece, and it has a tendency to lose its urgency when he's not around.
But the show is also successful in telling the core journey of Nell (evoked by a guileless and wholly credible newcomer named Lorri Hamm) and her loving but compulsively gambling grandfather (played by Troy West with total mastery of the role's complexities). Their relationship is depicted with the kind of truth that engages the emotions and sets the mind thinking about one's own familial flaws and their consequences.
Between all of that, though, Dickens provides his usual rogues' gallery of Cockney gothics. In a dramatic version that needed more narration in its middle sections, some of these characters work and some do not. It's not all the fault of the actors--it's tough to figure how far to push the tics and eccentricities that must make up critters like the evil Quilp (Thomas J. Cox) and his poor missus (Lisa Tejero), or the bizarre creature known as The Marchioness (Elizabeth Ledo). But here, they get pushed further than can be easily believed.
This issue crops up mostly because, while Tracy Walsh's production does not lack for ideas or intelligence, it hasn't yet achieved consistency of style. Not only are some of the performances broader than others, but the theatrical look of the piece (which has a shallow but nonetheless ambitious set from Brian Sidney Bembridge) similarly meanders between the kind of light, floating, symbolist staging that we typically associate with Lookingglass and a heavier Dickensian gestalt that involves both a greater degree of realism and the show-slowing need to move big and unwieldy pieces of wooden scenery.
The show is well-meaning and right-headed, but there's still a sense that too much has been packed into too small a space without an entirely consistent visual vocabulary. And we still don't get a good look at the Old Curiosity Shop, surely the central visual symbol of the piece.
They interrupt its pleasures from time to time, but none of those issues spoil the show's many evocative and powerful moments, ranging from Andrew White playing a veritable plethora of small, complete characters, to a sizzling, tear-jerking scene wherein West's grandfather--a creature of that unique Dickensian insight into pernicious weakness of spirit--finally lays bare his pathetic characters' capacity to destroy the only thing he cherishes.