Also see Sharon's review of The Brothers Karamazov
On these terms, Blair has done a fairly creditable job of adapting the lengthy novel. He has streamlined the story, but still manages to fit a good deal of it in. Of course, Blair gives us the heart of the story: Nicholas's adventure as an "assistant schoolmaster" to Wackford Squeers, a brutal man who beats and starves the children in his care; and Nicholas's ultimate escape with the horribly mistreated Smike. Blair also gives good coverage to Nicholas' uncle, Ralph, the Scrooge-esque character who values all personal relationships in terms of pounds and shillings. But Blair also includes Nicholas' sister, Kate, and some of her adventures, including working at Madam Mantalini's dress shop and becoming subject to the unwanted attentions of Lord ("Sir," in the novel) Mulberry Hawk.
Of course, there are simplifications. Certain episodes take place off-stage or are omitted entirely. But Blair's adaptation is at its best when he simply combines several characters into one. Hawk, for example, takes on the role of all-purpose lech. It is Hawk whose attentions earn Kate the disdain of her supervisor at the dress shop (rather than the "old lord" of the novel), and he later takes the place of Arthur Gride as the man who tries to marry Madeline, the object of Nicholas's affection, for some money she didn't know she had. In the novel - and Edgar's adaptation - Hawk's own story is given greater detail, and requires the presence of several subsidiary characters who do not appear in this play. Blair gives up the depth of Hawk's original story arc in exchange for an expansion of his essence.
The result is a play that sets kindness, virtue, and the downtrodden (in the shape of Nicholas, Kate, and Smike) against avarice, evil, and cruelty (Ralph, Hawk, and Squeers). It's simple and straightforward (and, in contrast to A Christmas Carol, not without casualties), but it's still a good story, and a moving one.
It's also a funny one. Blair's adaptation plays up the humor in the novel. Plenty of room is made at Squeers' school for his daughter Fanny to fall hopelessly, comically, in love with Nicholas. (Costume Designer Kiva Jump has created a truly hideous frilly dress for her, which she wears as though it is the most beautiful gown - and she the most beautiful princess - in the world.) Blair also includes an episode in which Nicholas' mother is wooed by the madman next door. And last, but definitely not least, we see what happens when Nicholas and Smike find themselves to be the newest members of a travelling theatre company.
The problem is that this adaptation isn't entirely sure when it should be funny and when it should be serious. When Nicholas ultimately turns on Squeers, there's a lot on the line - Nicholas knows he cannot turn to his uncle for assistance, and he is likely condemning himself (and his family) to a life of destitution. But the scene is not played as Nicholas' turning point, where he makes an absolute decision to do the right thing no matter what. Instead, it's played for laughs, with joyous music in the background. It does work in its way, but it makes the whole school plotline seem superficial.
The actors get the job done, with a couple of standouts. Joy Nash is exceptional in the double role of Kate's dress shop supervisor and the wife of the theatre company director. She is a dominating presence in both, creating comic characters not so much out of her lines, but how she says them (and reacts to others'). Jonathan P. Markanday brings an intensity to Mulberry Hawk which is quite effective. When he stares at Kate, you can almost see the thoughts in his mind, and they aren't rated PG. And Dominick Marrone and Frank Kesby get their share of laughs as the Cheerybles, two brothers who may actually share the same brain.
The production looks as though it was designed on a tight budget - the monochromatic cardboard cutout London in the background is a dead giveaway. There are some odd staging choices - sometimes characters have conversations without looking at each other, as they each face the audience directly rather than cheating out. And two chairs are pushed together to form a bench on which one character lies while another kneels in front of him facing entirely upstage and blocking the audience's view of the one on the bench. Director August Vivirito needs to find a way to show the audience both characters, while not losing their eye contact, in this pivotal scene.
If you go to Nicholas Nickleby expecting the same emotional experience you got with the Edgar adaptation, don't bother going. Without the 8 1/2 hour time investment, the payoff is substantially smaller. But if you go just to pick up your dash of Dickens this holiday season, and leave with a smile on your face, this production may be just the thing.
Nicholas Nickleby runs through January 15th, 2006 at the Flight Theatre at the Complex. Reservations Suggested: 310-869-7546.
The Production Company presents a new adaptation of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. Written by Gregory Blair; Directed by August Vivirito. Production Stage Manager Vance Roi Reyes; Executive Producers August Vivirito, Gregory Blair; Producer TL Kolman; Set Design August Vivirito & David Clark Smith; Scenic Master Painter Scot Renfro; Set Construction Scot Renfro, David Clark Smith, Will Starr, Laura Walker; Costumes Kiva Jump; Ralph Nickleby's Suit & Ladies' Victorian Gowns Valentino's Costumes; Lighting Matt Richter; Nina Crummles Musical Staging Wendy Douglas; Dialect Coach John Basiulis.
Steven Connor - Ralph Nickleby