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THEATER REVIEW / GREAT EXPECTATIONS : Art Imitates Art During the Project's Evolution : Adaptation efforts of Gale Fury Childs turn the literary world of Dickens into a polished theatrical production.

June 17, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The evolution of "Great Expectations," PCPA Theaterfest's original stage adaptation of the classic Dickens novel, is an ongoing saga that charts a nearly parallel course with its source material.

From its humble origins as a mobile project for PCPA's educational outreach wing, the piece has attained theatrical stature--much as its hero and narrator Pip is elevated from orphaned blacksmith's apprentice to the "higher sphere" of the aristocracy.

But while Pip's rising fortunes are due to the intervention of a mysterious benefactor, there's no mystery to the stage version's progress: a lot of hard work by adapter Gale Fury Childs to render the sometimes excruciatingly literary world of Dickens in theatrical terms.

After an initial tryout earlier this year followed by considerable reworking, the piece has been remounted to open the company's summer season in the outdoor Solvang Festival Theatre. Tighter, shorter, and far more polished, it's a noticeable improvement on an already enjoyable evening's entertainment.

But in its quest for the status of full-fledged play, there's still a ways to go.

Nonetheless, it's an ideal showcase for the impressive performing talents of a six-member cast who slip in and out of the 34 characters that inhabit even this compressed version of the sprawling Victorian-era epic.

Leading the pack is Gregg Coffin, who effortlessly sheds the lumbering menace of the escaped convict Magwitch for the dry inscrutability of Pip's lawyer-guardian Jaggers, or the comically foppish Uncle Pumblechook.

Karen Barbour straddles an equally demanding spectrum, from the cruel Estella, Pip's unrequiting heartthrob, to his warmhearted childhood friend, to the shadowy figure of Pip's elusive pursuer.

Theresa Thuman, Jack Greenman, and Eric M. Cole divide the remaining roles with a facility that belies the complicated logistics involved. Each, however, is most memorable for a primary character--Thuman reeks with decayed malice as the creepy jilted recluse Miss Havisham, Greenman exudes stalwart integrity as Pip's crude but loyal brother-in-law Joe, and Cole brings cheerful enthusiasm to Pip's best friend.

Pip himself is credibly rendered by Michael Scott Shipley, who by virtue of his function as both hero and narrator must remain onstage as a single character. However, he gets ample opportunity for range as Pip grows from pre-adolescent rube to a mature city slicker.

But Shipley's innate likability proves a hurdle in the crucial theme of emerging snobbishness that accompanies Pip's acquisition of culture and status--a little more sharpness at times would add weight to his ultimate repentance.

In this regard, the abbreviated staging of loyal Joe's awkward visit to the nouveau riche Pip in London is the only lapse in the otherwise judicious edits from the previous staging--we practically race through this pivotal scene without a clear sense of its implications for Pip's character. David Lean actually added an introspective reflection at this point in his film version--a similar punctuation might have helped here as well.

Overall, adapter Childs' original direction has been tastefully streamlined this time around by Roger DeLaurier.

The remaining problems are mostly in an over-reverence for Dickens' text as written--sometimes placing fidelity above theatrical effect. This is particularly noticeable in the excessive reliance on narration for what could be shown (or omitted).

With some firm pruning, this play could enjoy an even more successful evolutionary leap.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Great Expectations." Performed through June 26, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. at the Solvang Festival Theatre. Tickets are $12-$17. Running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes. Call (805) 893-3535 for reservations or further information.

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