Despite brilliant concept, reimagined ‘Great Expectations’ falls flat

SHARE Despite brilliant concept, reimagined ‘Great Expectations’ falls flat
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Netta Walker and Anand Bhatt in “Great Expectations,” in a co-production by Remy Bumppo Theatre and Silk Road Rising of the U.S. premiere of Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of the Dickens classic. | PHOTO BY JOHNNY KNIGHT

Deep into Anita Gupta’s set-in-India adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” the impoverished orphan Pip has been transformed into a newly minted “English gentleman.” Proudly decked out in the latest British fashion and speaking with the clipped, mannered tones of the English uppercrust, he’s embraced the culture of the British Raj.

‘Great Expectations’ Somewhat Recommended When: Through July 2 Where: Silk Road Rising, Pierce Hall at the Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington Tickets: $35, $15 students Info: greatexpectationsplay.org

“To be sure,” says Pip’s beloved stepfather Joe, “you are an honor to your Queen and country.” It’s not a compliment. There’s bile dripping from Joe’s voice, which is steeped in the knowledge that India is simmering with rage over the outcome of 1857’S First War of Indian Independence. The revolution ended with a draconian crackdown by the Brits. Hundreds of Indians were summarily rounded up and executed. Pip (Anand Bhatt) doesn’t realize it, but his slavish admiration for the ways of the English is a betrayal of the people who love him most.

That English/Indian tug-of-war for Pip’s soul is at the heart of Silk Road Rising and Remy Bumppo Theatre’s co-production. Growing up poor and reviled for his darkness, poverty and country ways, Pip wants nothing more than to don the attire and adopt the culture of the British.It takes decades – and a twisting plot laden with murders, heartbreak, illicit love affairs and myriad cross-continental adventures – for Pip to realize what his best friend Biddy (Rasika Ranganathan) has known along: Money doesn’t make you a better person.

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Co-directed by Lavina Jadhwani and Nick Sandys, “Great Expectations” achieves mixed results in telling the story of Pip’s evolution. First and foremost, the more-than-three-hour script needs an edit. In the second half especially, the script becomes mired in labyrinthine monologues so wordy and winding it becomes hard to keep up.

Also deeply problematic is the blocking in several key scenes involving Pip and Miss Havisham (Linda Gillum), the spooky old woman who takes pre-teen Pip under her wing. Miss Havisham is one of the most indelible characters Dickens wrote, and she plays a crucial role in “Great Expectations.”Inexplicably, Sandys and Jadhwani have her sitting with her back to roughly half the audience for many of her scenes. Depending on where you’re seated, the only part of Miss Havisham you’ll really see is the back of her head.

The show also suffers from rookie pacing mistakes. Despite having a fairly minimalist set, “Great Expectations” is punctuated by countless blackouts during which furniture is rearranged and wheeled about.

Production problems aside, Gupta’s concept for “Great Adaptation” is brilliant. Dickens’ original is a scathing commentary on classism and the hypocrisy of the pious wealthy. By making the impoverished Pip an Indian orphan and moving the story to India, Gupta layers issues of racism and colonialism onto the story. The English’s self-anointed superiority has taught Pip to hate the very skin he lives in. It’s a tragic legacy that remains intensely relevant today — as pointed out in a recent Moth story slam, “Fair and Lovely” skin cream is a multi-million dollar seller among Indian women who have been told for centuries that lighter is better.

As Pip, Bhatt has an extraordinary athletic grace that serves the role well. Pip is endlessly inquisitive, energetic and innocent, all traits that shine through. As Pip’s best friend Biddy, Ranganathan has an effortless aura of kindness and intelligence. And as Pip’s stepfather Joe, Anish Jethmalani captures the proud, quiet decency of a man defined by wisdom and boundless generosity.As Miss Havisham, Gillum is burdened by a role that’s underwritten. The character’sabrupt change of heart in the last moments are more scenery-chewing histrionics than believable emotion. As Pip’s unattainable dream girl Estella, Netta Walker hasn’t quite found the truth to the character’s hard-heartedness. Estella seems more wooden than intentionally cruel.

Gupta’s “Great Expectations “ is a potentially revelatory version of the original whose time is now. Dickens is ripe for thoughtful revisionism and Gupta redefines him for the 21st century, hewing closely to both the intent and the content of the original work while revising it into newfound relevance. Streamline the script, fix that infernal blocking and figure out a way around all those blackouts. Then, “Great Expectations” could be truly great.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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