Title: Mr. Dickens' Hat. Playwright: Michael Hollinger
At: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. Tickets: $30-$89; Northlight.org . Runs through: Jan. 2
Dickens was NOT dead, to begin with. While history attests to his riding the train that derailed midway across the Kent river just outside Staplehurst on that fateful day in 1865, the famous English author not only escaped serious injury, but ministered to the wounded passengers by fetching them water, using his fashionable high-crowned hat as a canteenthat same hat enshrined later in the London haberdashery of one Mr. Garbleton, coincidentally located next door to a millinery shop owned by a Mrs. Prattle. All this must be clearly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story we are about to hear.
Our first glimpse of the shop, however, reveals it to be Garbleton AND Prattle's headwear emporium, in recognition of the mergerand imminent weddingof the adjacent hatmakers. Its staff consists of youngsters Ned, the widowed Garbleton's son, and school-dropout Kit, whose wages serve to reduce her father's sentence in Debtor's Prison (a criminal offense in those times). Little do they suspect that its wardenaptly named "Fleece" and boasting an eye patch and a fox-collared greatcoatis plotting to steal the proprietors' precious relic and sell it to an unscrupulous private collector. Ensuing intrigue involves a none-too-bright sidekick, a none-too-bright constable, a society lady of a certain age, her devoted valetoh, and a very vocal parrot and dog.
Michael Hollinger likely didn't know he would have an extra year to integrate his text's nebulous chronologymanifested in the first moment that a character references an engineer's "pocket protector" and another adds "which won't be invented until 1947"with his score of quasi-gilded age ballads echoing those of the period, in addition to the conceit of only six actors playing nearly 20 roles (including the aforementioned pets), along with assembling/shifting scenery, costumes and set dressing.
To be sure, playgoers recalling Hollinger's other plays will arrive suitably aware of the playwright's penchant for yarns featuring an abundance of wordplay, horseplay and multi-level moving partssometimes so much as to outpace its performers, and ultimately its audience. If the initial performance at Northlight Theatre sometimes gave the impression of spilling, rather than emerging, onto the stage, director David Catlin and his cast encompass several alums of the athletic Lookingglass ensemble, ensuring physical stamina meeting the demands of comic slapstick like an extended tandem sequence of piggyback stuntwork, as well as the thrilling spectacle of a final showdown suspending heroine and villain from a frozen railway trestle over the icy depths of the Thames. Whoever said Victorians didn't enjoy action-suspense dramas?