Playwright: Raymond Fox,
Laura Eason, Heidi Stillman
At: Lookingglass Theatre Company
Phone: ( 312 ) 337-0665; $20-$58
Runs through: June 11
By Jonathan Abarbanel
Since moving into their purpose-built theater in the Water Tower Pumping Station, Lookingglass Theatre Company has taken one step backward for every two steps forward. Their successes and their failures all have been ambitious and creative, but the failures have been concept- rather than story-driven—projects mounted chiefly because the troupe now has the technical means to mount them. Steppenwolf went through the same Edifice Complex when its Halsted Street theater was new. With Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, Lookingglass commandingly returns to what it does best: a strong story strongly told.
Kindly but ineffectual Grandfather Trent and his granddaughter, Nell, flee London when their second-hand store is seized for Trent's gambling debts by the moneylender Quilp. A malevolent and licentious dwarf, Quilp pursues them across the English countryside until, exhausted, they die just as succor is at hand.
The stylish, handsome production is dominated by the graceful, arching bridge of Brian Sidney Bembridge's two-story architectural set, looking as if made of polished English oak or mahogany. The upper bridge level is used for outdoor scenes—roadway, field, canal, cemetery—while interiors are played below utilizing doors and windows built underneath the bridge. Aided enormously by T. J. Gerckens' shadowbox lighting, director Tracy Walsh's impeccably paced staging turns the entire company into kinetic Victorian silhouettes. With the addition of Mara Blumenfeld's period-perfect costumes—given subtle character exaggerations—the circa 1840 atmosphere is complete.
Under Walsh, the actors find the balance between truthful characterization and Dickensian expansiveness. All but Lorri Hamm ( Nell ) and Troy West ( Grandfather ) play multiple roles, none more astonishingly than Thomas J. Cox as Quilp. The script never identifies Quilp as a dwarf, but Cox plays him on bent, sprung legs, his head always lower than the others. With a meat-grinder voice, scarlet coat and explosive movement, Cox's Quilp is a grotesque vermilion cockroach, although he's more amusing than repulsive. The character work by Eve Breneman, Lawrence E. DiStasi and Lisa Tejero, among others, is consistently first-rate in this true ensemble piece.
Lookingglass calls The Old Curiosity Shop 'A Victorian Fairy Tale of Joy and Woe.' Sorry, but it's not. Dickens wrote moral and social tales, not fairy tales. And joy is not in ready supply either in the book or the production. While leavened with plentiful comedy and populated by Dickens' typically whimsical figures, it's very much an unhappy tale even though it has loving elements.
Condensed for the stage, several subplots and characters are cut. For example, Grandfather Trent is impoverished through the actions of persons now missing. An expository scene explaining this circumstance would help redeem the old man's otherwise tarnished character. Similarly, Little Nell's death is among the most famous episodes of Victorian literature, a passage of heart-rending pathos or revolting sentimentality, according to taste. The adaptors have avoided it, perhaps a mistake. Finally, in a minor staging lapse, Quilp's fate isn't clear. He drowns, but several people thought a train hit him. It should be easy to clear the confusion.