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Stage Review : Sterling 'Fools' From Dickens

January 13, 1986|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Somebody--it may have been G.K. Chesterton--said of Charles Dickens that he gave us "a radiant fairyland of fools."

This is not news to Emlyn Williams. For the last 34 years, the British actor and playwright has gleefully plundered this "fairyland" and taken a number of its superhuman "fools" a step further: He has put them on the stage.

In a manner of speaking. What he has done (as you can see nightly at the Westwood Playhouse), is put their creator on the stage and let him-- Charles John Huffam Dickens--"read" to us from his novels and stories and bring his own characters to life. This is art imitating biography, for Dickens himself, in his restless middle years, did exactly that: solo readings from his own works, with which he even traveled the United States.

Could the real Dickens have been as striking as Williams playing Dickens? Irrelevant. Williams has so empirically appropriated the Dickensian skin (along with a drooping mustache and longish, split gray beard) that one suspects its original owner would choose to do as the rest of us--sit back and bask (with a little self-congratulation perhaps) in the parade of scenes Williams unfurls before us.

It includes choice social satire ("Our Mutual Friend" and "Little Dorritt"), high jinks (Bob Sawyer's bachelor party from "The Pickwick Papers"), still higher melodrama ("Dombey and Son"), a horror story ("The Black Veil"), descriptive narrative ("Tale of Two Cities"), a tall circus story ("The Tale of a Little Person") and the delicious "Bedtime Story for a Good Child" to see us home happy.

Williams delivers all this standing nearly motionless at a replica of Dickens' own specially designed burgundy velvet lectern. With the choicest collection of half gestures, wan smiles, raised eyebrows and faintly tainted inflections, he re-creates an entire Victorian landscape vigorously peopled with Veneerings, Twemlows, Dombeys, Pipchins, Podsnaps and Bob Sawyers. The results may not be new, but they are--still--absolutely sterling.

A great deal of the pleasure to be found here is that of rediscovery. At once distant and enigmatic, Williams reawakens our hunger for Dickens' double magnification.

Again we find Mrs. Pipchin's face mottled "like bad marble," her teaching designed "not to encourage a young mind to open like a flower, but to open it by force--like an oyster." The "automaton from the music shop" is still playing piano at Miss Podsnap's coming-out party "like a convict behind the bars of a rosewood jail." To the poor wretch's dismal plunking, "16 disciples danced like a revolving funeral." And we can just tell what "a dead dinner, lying in state" would taste like, even though we wouldn't care to try it, thank you.

At his best, which seems to be always, Williams reminds us of what an irresistible satirist Dickens was--part showman, part vulgarian, part magician, with an old habit of caricature largely acquired as a journalist. The recent raft of other stage adaptations of Dickens ("Nicholas Nickleby," "Great Expectations," "David Copperfield," "Bleak House" and "Oliver!") affirm his contemporary appeal.

Yet the reason the Williams selection feels so new and fresh every time it comes through town can only be attributed to the actor's own powers of interpretation, quite undiminished by the recent celebration of his 80th birthday. Almost without moving a muscle, Williams translates reams of language into a vivid and immediate aural and visual feast.

"Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens" was at the Westwood exactly four years ago. It is at the old address for only seven more performances. It is not new. It is not different. But it is literate entertainment to its finger tips in the care of one of England's National Living Treasures. See it. If you already have, treat yourself all over again.

Performances at 10886 LeConte Ave. run Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m. (213-208-5454).

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