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Strawdog’s ‘Great Expectations’ one of the year’s best

Kyle A. GibsMichael Tepeli star 'GreExpectations' Strawdog Theatre. | Chris Ocken photo

Kyle A. Gibson and Michael Tepeli star in "Great Expectations" at Strawdog Theatre. | Chris Ocken photo

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‘GREAT

EXPECTATIONS’

Highly recommended

When: Through Dec. 14

Where: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway

Tickets : $28

Info: (773)528-9696;
strawdog.org

Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, one intermission

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:48PM



By all accounts, Charles Dickens was not just a genius storyteller but a superb actor too — one reason his characters jump so easily from page to stage, complete with distinctive gestures and speaking styles and the full panoply of eccentricities.

What makes the crucial difference in Strawdog Theatre’s magnificent production of “Great Expectations” — easily among the finest shows of the year — is that its supremely gifted ensemble of six actors not only captures all the superficial qualities of Dickens’ marvelous characters (and they play about 40 of them), but they furrow deep into their hearts and souls. The many individual quirks are unquestionably amusing, revealing and richly theatrical, but there is something far greater going on here. Along with Gale Childs Daly’s flawless adaptation and Jason W. Gerace’s diamond-cut direction, it is this emotional undertow that makes this production soar. The show is a stunner on every level.

Much like the now legendary production of “Gatsby” devised by New York’s Elevator Repair Service, this production begins with the actors as Victorian era readers perusing the shelves of a library (Joanna Iwanicka’s movable set is an elegant marvel). Then, as the novel’s opening lines are read aloud, the story assumes a life of its own. It is a piercing tale of how England’s strict class structure warped human values, often driving people to “commit the worse meannesses for those [they] most despise” simply because they are “ashamed” of home and aspire to be accepted by those who appear superior.

Pip (Mike Tepeli, a handsome, coal-eyed actor of impressive range and fire, and the only cast member to play a single role) learns this lesson, and many others, the hard way. Taken under the wing of the warm-hearted blacksmith, Jo (John Ferrick easily captures the very essence of the man’s decency), Pip becomes distracted by his strange connection to the household of Miss Havisham (a strong but understated Megan Kohl), a wealthy woman who years ago was abandoned at the altar. She has since raised a beautiful young girl, Estella (a magnificently steely Amanda Drinkall, who does a perfect about-face as the kind, insightful Biddy), training her to exact revenge on all men. Pip is Estella’s victim, and his quest to win her by becoming a gentleman only leads him into heartbreak.

This being Dickens, the plot is far more complicated, but it is one measure of this production’s greatness (and the actors’ superb morphability) that every surprising twist and unexpected turn is made crystal clear.

Kyle A. Gibson is a haunting mix of brutality and morality as Abel Magwich, the convict whose encounter with the 6-year-old Pip (intensified by Sam Hubbard’s fight choreography) is life-transforming. And John Taflan is comic perfection as Herbert Pocket, the fast-talking young London gentleman who becomes Pip’s devoted friend.

While matters of status and snobbery, “material goods” and inheritance are uppermost in many of the characters’ minds here, it is the true meaning (and value) of love, both familial and romantic, that propels Dickens’ story. And this is understood only after the greatest pain, humiliation and yearning — after the heart has been damaged.

Of course this being Dickens, there also is great humor (including a couple of rollicking visits to the theater) and adventure (as bookcases are transformed into a row boat) and work (the blacksmith’s forge), all imaginatively conjured.

Best of all there is a wonderful sense of life finally being set right — not with a happy ending so much as an unexpected one.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic



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