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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Sterling Production of Charles Dickens' The Life and Adventures
of Nicholas Nickleby

Also see Richard's review of Dangerous

Nicholas Nickleby
L. Peter Callender, Nancy Carlin, Stephen Barker Turner, Susannah Schulman, Michael Phillis and Danny Scheie
California Shakespeare Theatre is presenting the cut-down six and a half hour production of David Edgar's landmark two-play adaptation of Charles Dickens' extensive novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Part One played through August 7, and Part Two is now playing at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre just off Highway 24 between Berkeley and Orinda. Both two halves will play in repertory from September 13th through 16th with two marathons on September 10th, 17th and 18th. It is well worth the effort to see both parts since this is the theatrical event of the summer with a sterling cast of twenty four actors playing many roles.

California Shakespeare Theatre has surpassed my expectations with this superb production that contains a wedding, a hanging, a duel to the death, and a troupe of traveling players who magnify each gesture and emotion with a stage version of Romeo and Juliet in which the corpses come singing back to life. This was my second experience with this major theatrical event since I saw the eight and a half hour New York production at the Plymouth Theatre with Roger Rees, Edward Petherbridge, Bob Peck, Alum Armstrong and David Threlfall. I paid an "outrageous" price of $100 a seat in the early '80s - it was well worth the price. Later, PBS filmed the production for all to enjoy. The Cal Shakes production is just as enchanting and exciting as the production I saw in New York. Every person in this large cast is magnificent. It is sublime ensemble theater.

Nicholas Nickleby creates an extraordinary bond between itself and the audience as we watch the roguish adventures of honorable young Nicholas (Stephen Barker Turner) in Victorian England. The epic drama is seldom deep, with wonderful characters such as Kate (Susannah Schulman) and their adoring handicapped friend Smike (Clifton Guterman) pitted against the enormously bad usurer and evil genius Uncle Ralph Nickleby (James Carpenter), Smike's gleeful tormentor Squeers (Andy Murray), and the coveting Sir Mulberry Hawk (Andy Murray again). There are also colorful characters: Mr. Mantalini with a wonderful way of speech (Danny Scheie), the colorful head of an acting troupe Mr. Vincent Crummles (L. Peter Callender), Mrs. Crudden (Joan Mankin) who sings and dances a rousing song in Part Two, the tender-hearted Newman Noggs (Dan Hiatt) and the eccentric Cheeryble brothers Charles (Andrew Hurteau) and Ned (Anthony Nemirovsky).

There is not one weak performance within the ensemble of twenty-four, and the hours fly by while watching the remarkable actors on the large outdoor stage. Stanley Barker Turner as Nicholas holds the whole epic together and gives an earnest and heartfelt performance. His change from a na´ve young man of nineteen to a more mature man is beautifully accomplished.

Clifton Guterman is outstanding as Smike. He gives a movingly innocent portrait of a handicapped person with a deformed body and speech. His performance wrenches at your heart as he spills out his words slowly. James Carpenter as the dastardly Ralph gives a champion performance as Ralph discovers his humanity too late. His tormented scene at the end of the Part Two is a tour de force of great acting. Nancy Carlin is wonderfully flighty as a Nicholas' mother, a "Billie Burke" character.

Dan Hiatt as the eccentric Newman Noggs is mesmerizing in the role. Andy Murray makes a fine evil person in the roles of Squeers and Sir Mulberry Hawk. He is the perfect villain that you love to hate. Danny Scheie is hilarious as the pretentious Mantalini, having his way with with Dickens' dotty words. He is also wonderful as one of the leading actors of the touring acting group, especially in the singing version of their Romeo and Juliet. L Peter Callender is brilliantly theatrical as the leader of this band of merry players.

Delia MacDougall is exceptional as the huffy daughter Fanny and playing the opposite as the sexy leading lady of the traveling acting troupe. Domenique Lozano is first rate as the over-the-top Mrs. Crummles and the avaricious Mrs. Squeers. Catherine Castellanos is very good as impulsive Madame Mantalini. Susannah Schulman is glowing as Kate Nickleby. Andrew Hurteau and Anthony Nemirovsky are delightful as the brothers Cheeryble.

Joan Mankin goes "drag" in Part Two as the opportunistic Arthur Gride, and she does a fine job in this male role. Tom Blair as Tim Linkinwater is first class in the role of the Cheeryble business ventures. Alexandra Creighton, Mia Tagano, Jud Williford, Andrea Day, Domenique Lozano, Sarah Nealis, Joseph O'Malley, Michael Phillis, and Nicholas Pelczar take on various roles in both parts and they do excellent portrayals of the various characters.

Neil Patel's set design is perfect for the big outdoor stage, with a bank of growing trees and the hills of Contra Costa County in the background. Using a minimum of props and sets, he has created pubs, schoolhouses and packed stagecoaches from tables and benches. There are also platforms pulled into the stage by the actors for various scenes. Anna Oliver's costumes are perfect for the period. Alexander Nichols has lit the natural trees beautifully in the background of the outdoor stage. Co-directors Jonathan Moscone and Sean Daniels sweep things along as scene follows scene and sequences flash by at a good rattling pace.

Nicholas Nickleby Part Two will run through September 11th. Both parts will run in rotating repertory called Rep Week from September 13 - 16 with Part One and Part Two performed on alternating night to allow patrons to see the entire production on back-to-back nights. Cal Shakes will also offer three marathon performances on September 10th, 17th and 18th.. Bruns Amphitheater is located in the East Bay Hills between Berkeley and Orinda on a protected watershed. It is off Highway 24 past the tunnel. Take Gateway Exit and follow the Cal Shakes signs. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for more information.

The season's final production will be William Shakespeare's The Tempest which opens on September 28 and runs through October 23rd.


Photo: Kevin Berne


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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