By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
According to literary legend when the final installment of Charles Dickens’ serial The Old Curiosity Shop arrived from the British publisher on the docks of New York City harbor a huge mob was waiting; they swarmed the boat, grabbed the sailors and demanded: “Is little Nell dead?!?!?
Take that, Miss J. K. Rowling!
PICT Classic Theatre gives us a chance to see what the fuss was about back in 1841 with their season-opening production of The Old Curiosity Shop adapted for the stage and directed by PICT Artistic Director Alan Stanford.
The Old Curiosity Shop continues through December 15. WQED Studios, Oakland. 412/561-6000. www.picttheatre.org
I’ve never read Curiosity Shop before, nor I have seen a stage, film or TV version – so I’d like to thank PICT for this production because now I know that I will never want to read or see Curiosity Shop again.
To be clear, that’s mostly not the fault of PICT. Dickens is a man of his time and wrote what was then the fashion. But, today, it can feel overwritten with too much froufrou, extraneous characters, needless complications and a sentimentality too ludicrous to be credited. Maybe that’s not quite a deal breaker on the page – but those elements onstage create insurmountable problems. And the biggest is that it’s a style of entertainment with which modern audiences just aren’t familiar anymore; melodrama. Toe curling, eye rolling, stomach churning melodrama.
The aforementioned little Nell is just about the most adorable little girl you ever did see. Her parents have gone to their final reward and Nell’s being raised by her grandfather who, to put it mildly, shouldn’t. He’s a habitual gambler and the local usurer, Quilp, has taken his money, his shop and plans to take his granddaughter! Nell and Pappy hit the road with Quilp in hot pursuit while assorted goodies and baddies create all kinds of background noise. The story reaches its climax with the two refugees finding safety but the escape has taken a toll on Nell and she dies.
And there’s not a moment which, to contemporary eyes, doesn’t seem like complete, utter hokum. Nell is so sweet, so sincere, so innocent and so doomed you just want to smack her right across her little imperiled face. Of course there’s the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” But poet Algernon Swinburne called Nell “a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads.”
Playing against her saintliness are villainous villains luxuriating in their own villainy. It isn’t enough that Quilp is greedy and a liar, duplicitous and a pedophile … he’s also a hunchback dwarf!
I doubt any adaptation could make this story work; Stanford does what he can but the result is probably a little too loose and sprawling and he never quite makes us forget we’re watching an adapted novel.
As director Stanford plays up the melodrama; an artistically defensible choice, perhaps, but I’m not sure that it works. The noble characters are affectless and numbingly sincere, the bad guys are highly stylized in speech and movement and these two opposing camps feel like they’re in different plays.
Martin Giles, James FitzGerald, Karen Baum and Matt Henderson are the dastardly scoundrels hitting all the “Snidely Whiplash” notes. Caroline Lucas, Jacob Epstein, Jeff Monahan and Sean Lenhart play virtuous heroes and while they are effective, they do remind us that evil is a lot more entertaining. Jonathan Visser, Ken Bolden and Kendra McLaughlin are engaging as the evening’s narrators and Jordan Ross Weinhold gets some laughs as the drunk with a heart of gold.