Silk Road Rising and Remy Bumppo Bring us to India
The lights dim and the rich tonal hues of sitars and such fill the hall commanding Western ears to break out of their monochromatic mold. The music (Ronnie Malley: Sound Design and Original Music) and mogul-styled arch (Yeaji Kim, Set and Projections Designer). announce that we are in India.
In short order we are ensconced in Dickens’ classic story. Orphan Pip (Anand Bhatt) is being beaten into obedience by his overbearing elder sister (Alka Nayyar, as Mrs. Gargery) who complains of what an ingrate he is. Her husband, Joe Gargery (Anish Jethmalani) is quickly established as a font of unconditional love and friendship for the young boy. Pip soon has what will turn out to be a fateful encounter with a criminal on the lam (Magwitch, played by Robert D. Hardaway), who in this adaptation is an African-born escapee from the island prisons the British had established to help them keep their colonial hold.
Hews Closely to Classic Story
“OMG!” many of us familiar with this classic may already be thinking—“These are EXACTLY Dickens words!” It hits you even before you meet Miss Havisham (Linda Gillum) and her orphan charge Estella (Netta Walker), who seem to walk off the novel’s pages, albeit in this version, Estella has gained in beauty from her mixed race origins.
Saris and dhotis, accents lilting in spot-on perfection, a cobbler instead of a blacksmith, a Hindu crematorium instead of a field, and those musical tabla-rich touches— we are so much in India that we can almost smell the curry. Yet, what stuns is how perfectly Dickens’ story translates into this setting, finding new textures of meaning along the way.
Colonialism, Class and Racism
It struck this writer, and especially when listening to an orator on a Hyde Park styled soapbox (Raj Bond) rant about breaking the colonialist yoke, that the spicing in this Indian take on Dickens was less hing and more Frantz Fanon. Oxford-educated Bengali-Brit playwright Tanika Gupta has given Dickens a poignant resonance with any discourse on where racism and class divides meet, above and beyond the setting of Colonial India in the mid-19th Century.
One suspects that Silk Road Rising and Remy Bumppo should also write a training manual on how to make theater collaborations work. Co-directed by Lavinia Jadhwani and Nick Sandys, this doesn’t appear to be a big budget production. The set is simple but effective, especially in the first half, using Silk Road’s church basement space wisely The colorful costumes (Elsa Hiltner) and dance scenes (Alka Nayyar) will remind travelers of what they love most about Indian culture; and then also switch to the traditional British garb that reminds of how well-dressed the Colonials looked no matter how brutal the moment.
All of the cast members have what it takes to keep you engaged. Anish Jethmalani’s great warmth fills the expanded role that Gupta’s script seems to make for Joe Gargery. You gotta love that Linda Gillum stays in character during scene change blackouts in her ever so creepy rendition of Miss Havisham. It’s in her final scene that Netta Walker as Estella is especially able to show her considerable acting chops. You too may think that you’ve seen Roderick Peeples (Jaggers) playing that so British solicitor before—and check the program, maybe you have! It strikes this writer that Magwitch’s monologues and physical persona were not especially easy things to pull off--- but Hardaway does it seamlessly, as does Lane Anthony Flores as the almost morbidly cheerful Herbert Pocket.
How fun that this Pip (Anand Bhatt) has some acrobatic talents that are unleashed a bit. It’s a nice add-on to an acting range that ably spans the emotional ups and downs of expectations small, great, diminished and re-born.
Due warning should be given that this play is three hours, with one intermission. This is Charles Dickens, after all, a writer paid by the word. That sounds worse than it is. You probably won’t mind. It’s like a long thali meal, where the treats keep coming and coming. It’s easy to imagine Charles Dickens sitting with you at the table, loving it as you do, and looking expectantly to Gupta to come again to re-fill his plate.
This is especially a fit for lovers of classic literature set to theater in innovative ways.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Now thru July 2, 2017
Thursdays 7:30 PM
Fridays 8:00 PM
Saturdays 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM
Sundays 4:00 PM
Silk Road Rising
The Historic Chicago Temple Building
77 W. Washington St, Lower Level
Chicago, IL 60602
$35; $15 Students
Purchase at www.GreatExpectationsPlay.org or call 312 857 1234, ext 201.
Note: An Excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.