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Actors take on Herculean task in ‘Great Expectations’

AmandDrinkall Michael Tipeli 'GreExpectations' Strawdog Theatre. |  Chris Ocken photo~Copyright 2013

Amanda Drinkall and Michael Tipeli in "Great Expectations" at Strawdog Theatre. | Chris Ocken photo~Copyright 2013

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‘Great Expectations,’ Nov. 11-Dec. 14, Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. $28. (773) 528-9696; strawdog.org

Adapting a Charles Dickens novel for the stage is not for the fainthearted. Add in the fact that six actors quick-change their way through nearly 40 characters in Gale Childs Daly’s version of “Great Expectations,” and the feat seems even more impossible.

In the late ’80s, Daly was working at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in California, where she created scripts for actors to perform at local schools. A longtime fan of Dickens, she was asked to do a 45-minute adaptation of “Great Expectations.”

“I thought that was a crazy idea but I did it,” Daly says with a laugh. The play was a hit and she was asked to expand it to a 2-hour version. This is the version director Jason W. Gerace encountered in a student production while in graduate school at the University of Oklahoma.

“It struck me as a really smart, sharp adaptation,” Gerace says. “All the things important to the story were there but in an economical package.” The two-hour play will have its Chicago premiere at Strawdog Theatre.

Gerace directs the six-member cast — Amanda Drinkall, John Ferrick, Kyle A. Gibson, Megan Kohl, John Taflan and Mike Tepeli. The only character on stage the entire time is Pip (Tepeli), with the remaining actors playing all the other characters.

Dickens novels are often puzzles, filled with memorable, often quirky, characters and events that change lives in myriad ways. “Great Expectations,” long a staple of high school classrooms, is one of the more popular of the author’s works. It is the story of Pip, a young orphan who lives with his sister (known only as Mrs. Joe) and her husband (Joe), works at a job he hates, considers himself too good for his surroundings and experiences material success in London at an early age. Among the characters he meets on his journey of self-discovery are two of Dickens’ most memorable creations — eccentric Miss Havisham, and her cold and cruel ward, Estella, who is the love of Pip’s life.

Daly, a graduate of the Goodman School of Drama (now the Theatre School at DePaul University) who is now teaching directing at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., fell in love with Dickens’ novels as a teenager. She says the key is taking the time to enjoy his use of words. “The way Dickens uses language is such a joy,” Daly says.

Ferrick, who plays Joe (“a loyal sincere blacksmith”), Bentley Drummle (“a cruel SOB out to take and destroy”) and a smattering of other characters, says the entire cast and creative team collaborated to piece the show together.

“I’ve seen actors walking around with cheat sheets,” Ferrick says, with a laugh. “There are 35 scenes and most of them have a shift in terms of set or props that we have to access. We walk off stage as one person and come back as someone else. It’s been a fun puzzle to piece together. I think we’ll leave the audience with something they weren’t quite expecting.”



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