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Northlight Theatre tips its holiday ‘Hat’ to Dickens

A play with music takes holiday warmth, cheer and togetherness, adds in a bit of Victorian darkness, and wraps it all around the story of a young girl working to free her father from debtor’s prison.

Nick Sandys and Cordelia Dewdney star in “Mr. Dickens’ Hat” at Northlight Theatre.
Nick Sandys and Cordelia Dewdney star in “Mr. Dickens’ Hat” at Northlight Theatre.
Michael Brosilow

In past holiday seasons, Northlight Theatre has introduced several new seasonal plays of a certain era — Lauren Gunderson’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” and “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.” The highly engaging plays extended the story of characters from Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice.”

Now Northlight has commissioned another new play for this season, one right out of Charles Dickens’ 19th century Victorian London. Michael Hollinger’s “Mr. Dickens’ Hat,” a play with music, takes holiday warmth, cheer and togetherness, adds in a bit of Victorian darkness, and wraps it all around the story of a young girl working to free her father from debtor’s prison.

About seven years ago, Hollinger was “living in Dickens’ head” and wrestling with how to adapt the author’s novel “Bleak House,” when his mind wandered, and he began thinking about the ubiquity of “A Christmas Carol.” He wondered if perhaps there was something new to add to the holiday season that would capture the same spirit as the classic story.

“I wanted to write something that didn’t feel like it was specifically related to Christmas yet had everything audiences look for in a holiday play,” Hollinger says, adding he also wanted to employ what he calls “open-handed theater,” in which a small ensemble shares a story while constantly shifting between roles “to represent a community in all its diversity.”

In the fictional “Mr. Dickens’ Hat,” 12-year-old Kit works in a Victorian hat shop to earn money to pay off her father’s debt. In the shop resides a hat, once used by the show’s titular famous owner to carry water to the victims of a train wreck (true story). Onto the scene comes a pair of bumbling thieves; Kit must foil their plan, save the hat and secure her father’s release.

In creating the character of Kit, Hollinger says he wanted to move away from “Dickens’ usual young women who are pure and good. I wanted her to be very sharp and very intelligent.”

Director David Catlin, a Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member, fell for Dickens big time while working on the company’s acclaimed 2002 staging of “Hard Times.” He says Hollinger’s play encompasses “everything I love about Dickens.”

“Like Dickens, Michael taps into this really big-hearted world and captures the spirit of the Dickensian character,” Catlin says. “He’s created a world that’s vivid and true with characters of all class and stripe, plus some delicious, despicable villains.

“And, in the way Dickens does, he moves between these big, epic moments like a chase across an icy train trestle and these tiny delicate jewel-like moments as when Kit and her father reminisce about her late mother.”

Cordelia Dewdney stars as Kit with the remainder of the cast — Christine Bunuan, Ruchir Khazanchi, Kasey Foster, Mark David Kaplan and Nick Sandys — performing a multitude of roles.

For Hollinger, the hat shop setting provided the perfect means of helping the actors transform from one character to another simply via a hat. “In 19th century British society, you knew a person’s class by their garments,” he says.

Catlin adds that imagination plays a big role for both actors and audience.

“Playing multiple roles like this demands an inventive, imaginative athleticism from the actors. They have to change between characters in the blink of an eye,” Catlin says, adding, “I think it also demands in a delightful way the audience’s imagination to make it work.”

Hollinger, who teaches playwrighting and songwriting at Villanova University, also wrote the play’s chorales and carols. The music direction is by Chuck Larkin.

“What I really wanted to do was find forgotten gems of Victorian carols that are not specifically about Christmas,” Hollinger recalls. “But I couldn’t find any. So, I decided to write them, and was able to tailor-make the songs in a 19th-century musical style.”

“Mr. Dickens’ Hat” was intended to open for the 2020 holiday season but, like all theater, was canceled due to COVID-19 shutdowns. Hollinger feels the need for the play is even greater now than before the pandemic.

“The play is about how do we create community, how do we gather, how do we reach out and connect and where do we find warmth in cold times? All of the values the play is about, we need a lot of right now.”

As for that adaptation of “Bleak House,” it’s still rambling around in Hollinger’s head. The complex novel about a notorious lawsuit is not to be underestimated; it does not adapt easily.

“I keep approaching it like a kind of Everest,” he says with a laugh. “I get to base camp and then I keep backing off. But it remains my favorite Dickens novel.”