Playwright: adapted by Gale Childs Daly from the novel by Charles Dickens. At: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-528-9696; www.strawdog.org; $28 . Runs through: Dec. 14
Victorian novels were written for leisurely consumptionserialized, perhaps, one chapter at a time, in a weekly or monthly publicationand only later collected into a single volume. The abbreviated study practices encountered in modern classrooms where Charles Dickens is taught often mandates considerable editing of source material, while reconfigurations for the stage may consist of excerpted portions ( as in the high school textbooks ), or may pack entire stories into double-feature marathons like the Royal Shakespeare Company's legendary nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby in 1980.
Gale Childs Daly's adaptation takes neither of these paths, but instead employs a narrative technique akin to Paul Sills' Story Theater, featuring a six-member cast and a protean setting composed of a table, four chairs and a number of tall bookcases whose contents become, as needed, a lump of bread dough, a blacksmith's tools, a burning house or the banks of the Thames, besides providing a screen behind which actors change clothes and personae. The players begin by reading from individual copies of the novel, returning to this motif in the course of the performance, not because they are in need of prompting, but to indicate that what we hear at that moment is quoted verbatim from Dickens' text. The efficiency engendered thusly permits inclusion of such oft-ignored episodes as an amateur performance of Hamlet and a likewise rough-and-ready Christmas Panto.
This brand of literary legerdemain relies for its implementation firstly, on swift and precise timing, lest we lose our focus on the recitative thread, and secondly, on clear differentiation of our author's vividly-drawn characters: the sinister Abel Magwitch, the hearty Joe Gargary, the severe Mr. Jaggers, the fussy Mr. Wemmick, the eerie Mrs. Havisham ( whose ravaged face remains concealed behind her ancient wedding veil ), the haughty Estella and wholesome Biddy, and a host of facilitative, obstructive and expository personnel.
Under Jason Gerace's direction, the physically and verbally agile ensemble, led by Mike Tepeli as the orphaned protagonist, shifts between personalities with the swap of an apron or the donning of a pince-nez, keeping Dickens' coming-of-age fable proceeding smoothly and seamlessly for the smidgen over two hours necessary to bring the intricate plot to a satisfying resolution. "Take nothing on its looks," advises Jaggers, "but on the evidence." All evidence points to this being an unrivaled success for Strawdog Theatre Company.