Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Great Expectations
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of The Tempest

Lauren Winder, Christopher Thomas Pow
and Tarah Flanagan

Photo by Sydney Swanson
For theatergoers in the know, Great River Shakespeare Festival has become an essential part of summer in Minnesota. Happily, after a year of covid-induced hiatus, GRSF is back, with pandemic adjustments, presenting a slimmed-down season with two (instead of three) mainstage productions outdoors on a specially built stage in Levee Park along the Mississippi River in downtown Winona. Its usual black box production is being performed outdoors on the central green at Winona State University.

Great Expectations, the Charles Dickens novel in a stage adaptation written by Gale Childs Daly, is one of those mainstage productions. This coming of age saga has long been a popular assignment in high school English classes, including my own, but while teenage students may feel like it's a long, slow read, Daly's adaptation directed by GRSF artistic director Doug Scholz-Carlson zips along at a quickened pace. The actors provide narration throughout, creating the feel that must have been present when Dickens himself toured both England and the United States, delivering readings of his work.

The novel had its origins as a magazine serial, delivered by Dickens as a series of episodes. Child's rendition makes its way to Minnesota after mountings in Chicago, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Syracuse. She has trimmed the plot down, omitting some third-tier characters and storylines, or in some cases referring to them without putting them on stage, so that the lengthy book—541 pages when published in 1861—attains the feel of a page-turning graphic novel. If this sometimes comes at the expense of nuance and depth, it utterly holds our interest with clear storytelling, ingenious staging and engaging characters.

That the characters are vividly drawn is also testimony to the dexterity of Scholz-Carlson's actors. Christopher Thomas Pow, as Pip, carries the story's center, taking us along as he transitions from an unhappy orphan stuck in the hinterlands, whose older sister "raises him by hand (swat)", to a lovesick adolescent, a hopeful youth earnestly confident he will rise above his low class roots, to a young man who realizes the fleeting nature of all he has striven for and the values that truly matter. Without this persuasive performance by Pow, nothing else would matter much.

The other five actors on stage play multiple characters, switching from one to another via simple costume changes, adjustments in posture, and switching accents, with dialect coach Leah Gabriel earning our appreciation. Tarah Flanagan, a long time GRSF company member who becomes more essential each season, greets us as Pip's hard-hearted sister who brooks no sentiment, pivots effortlessly to assume a haunted aura as the wealthy but embittered spinster Miss Havisham, and instills the servant Molly with pained signs of the trauma that has attended her life.

Benjamin Boucvalt also offers up marvelous turns. As goodhearted Joe, the blacksmith husband of Pip's sister who tries his best to temper her blows with kindness and friendship, Boucvalt conveys the profound submission to the Victorian England class system that was the norm. He is sprightly as John Wemmick, Pip's efficient but good-natured guide through the chaos of London, and is delightfully irritating as Bentley Drummle, Pip's nemesis in the course of tutoring for life as a gentleman.

Lauren Winder is convincing as Estella, Miss Havisham's pretty ward whom she is training to be unable to love and thereby to break the hearts of men. Her heartlessness is all the more painful by playing Estella as holding Pip in subtle, rather than shrill, disdain. Winder is endearing as Pip's hometown friend and confidante, Biddy. Michael Fitzpatrick shines as the fearsome escaped convict Magwitch, whose graveyard encounter with Pip gets the tale rolling, as Joe's well-off uncle, who positions Pip to take a step up on the class ladder, and as Jaggers, the fussy barrister who administers a trust fund from an unidentified patron that finances Pip's unlikely social climb. Gavin Mueller amuses as Herbert Pocket, Pip's ally in the quest to become a gentleman, drolly managing, mid-sentence, to coach Pip in the etiquette of using tableware, and as Wopsie, a would-be Shakespearean actor from Pip's hometown. A scene depicting Wopsie's unhinged performance in Hamlet is highly entertaining.

Visibly perched atop the handsome wood-plank stage set, Brittany Proia plays an astonishing range of musical notes and sound effects, some enriching the atmosphere of scene, be it foreboding or merry, and others to grand comic effect. There is never a doubt that Proia, as much as any of the actors on stage, is a crucial part of the company telling this story.

Sound effects are especially useful, as the show is staged with a minimum of props and furnishings. An assortment of boards, chairs, and freestanding door are constantly rearranged to create tables, benches, and even the tumult of the streets of London. We hear the clang of Joe's hammer on iron as actor Boucvalt pantomimes the action, with no need for us to see an actual anvil or hammer. Carlson melds this modest assemblage of effects with his adroit direction to create evocative stage imagery, such as a rollicking Christmas party, the overturning of a boat in a storm-tossed river, and a searing fire which, though inevitable as the narrative thrusts forward, is staged to catch us in a gasp of surprise.

Costume designer Kyle Schellinger coyly starts the actors out garbed alike, black trousers for the gentlemen and skirts for the ladies, held up with black suspenders over grey shirts, allowing Pip to stand out with a bright blue vest and farmer's cap. Such simple elements as a hat, a collar, a belt, a vest, or an apron transform one character into another—also a tarnished-white spidery veil to cover the reclusive Miss Havisham's visage and ever-more elegant vests to make visible Pip's rising status.

Great Expectations describes an inherent desire felt by Pip to elevate himself in life, even in a society where such social mobility rarely occurs. Against all odds, we see him succeed in his quest, only to find that much of it is based upon illusion, and that as easily as it comes to him is how easily it can be lost. Pip's story is great fun, chock full of unexpected turns, with a wholly likable yet seriously flawed hero. At the same time, its larger theme remains poignantly pertinent today.

Dickens famously railed against the divisions between social classes, his works depicting great poverty and enormous wealth living side by side. We see similar scenes today, with homelessness and million dollar homes mere city blocks apart. How often do those riding the elevator to their penthouse condominiums think of those sleeping on the street "there but for fortune go I"? Pip learns that "great expectations" can take many forms. We leave him having fallen but poised to move forward with expectations that hold truer value.

Season 17 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through August 1, 2021. Great Expectations is performed on the Levee Stage at Levee Park in downtown Winona MN. Tickets: $20.00 - $70.00. Bring your own folding chair, along with sunscreen (some seating areas are shaded, but the sun may shift in the course of the performance). For schedule of performances and other event, and for tickets, call 507-474-7900 or visit

Adapted by Gale Childs Daly from the book by Charles Dickens; Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Costume Design: Kyle Schellinger; Costume Design Assistant: John Merritt; Composer and Sound Design: Scott O'Brien; Hair and Makeup Designer: Mary Capers; Props Designer: Ivy Treccani; Dialect Coach: Leah Gabriel; Intimacy Director: Tonia Sina; Fight Captain: Benjamin Boucvalt; Audio Engineers: Rachel Foster, Cassidy Sanford; Audio Supervisor and Sound Fellow: Nathaniel Brown; Hair and Makeup Fellow: Maia Soltis; Stage Manager: Madison Tarchala; Assistant Stage Manager: Abbi Hess.

Cast: Benjamin Boucvalt (Joe/ John Wemmick/ Bentley Drummle), Michael Fitzpatrick (Magwitch/ Mr. Pumblechook/ Jaggers), Tarah Flanagan (Mrs. Joe/ Miss Havisham/Molly), Gavin Mueller (Wopsie/ Herbert Pocket), Christopher Thomas Pow (Pip), Brittany Proia (musician/ sound effects), Lauren Winder (Biddy/ Estella).