2014 brings city-wide celebration of Charles Dickens 

Orlando Shakes’ massive production of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ plays the starring role

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TONY FIRRIOLO
  • Photo by Tony Firriolo

THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, PARTS 1 AND 2

through March 9 | Orlando Shakespeare Theater, 812 E. Rollins St. | 407-447-1700 | orlandoshakes.org | $20-$40

Victorian novelist Charles Dickens toiled in a blacking factory, edited periodicals, advocated for abolition, sired 10 children and kept a much younger mistress – but he never visited Orlando. That fact hasn’t stopped our town’s cultural institutions from rallying around the writer for a yearlong “What the Dickens?” city-wide celebration of his 202nd birthday. Throughout 2014, you can attend free Dickens readings and film screenings at the downtown public library; view Dickens-inspired artwork at the Orange County Administration Building; and compete in monthly “First Tuesday” Dickens trivia nights at Stardust Video and Coffee, hosted by Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs director Terry Olson. There’s even an incarnation of the author (in the form of actor Jay Becker), who celebrated “his” birthday with a cake at Loch Haven Park last Friday and will continue making appearances around town all year.

So, what the Dickens is up with Orlando’s obsession over a long-expired artist with no local connections? According to Olson, Orlando’s current Dickens devotion is significant because “he had a profound impact on great societal changes during his time and can speak to the issues that lie behind many of today’s societal problems. He helps us get better as a community, and in the process makes us laugh and cry together.”

Jim Helsinger, artistic director of Orlando Shakespeare Theatre and co-director of its current two-part production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a centerpiece of the Dickens project, was recently quoted in the Orlando Sentinel saying, “I’ve heard since the day I got here that Orlando’s a town without culture. It’s time to say that’s not true. … If we get the support in attendance [at Nickleby], it will be proof that we can go out and take the big risk. But if we don’t get the support, it will be hard for groups to do something like this again.” The marketing campaign also equates attendance with artistic appreciation, prompting patrons to “prove you’re a true theater lover” by purchasing multi-ticket packages.

Shakes is selling Nicholas Nickleby on its impressive statistics: 27 performers, 150 characters, 200-plus costumes, and most especially the six-and-a-half-hour hour running time. Patrons at double-header “marathon” performances (Feb. 15, Feb. 22, March 1, March 8 and March 9) are awarded badges of honor, and costumed actors jauntily chat out of character with patrons about how long the play is before curtain. Honestly, a nine-hour day (including three intermissions and a two-hour dinner break) is nothing to hard-core Fringe Festival fans, and barely compares to two Hobbits or a Downton Abbey binge-watch. This production isn’t even the whole megillah, as David Edgar’s prize-winning original adaptation has had two hours edited out – apparently including much of its heart, brains and social conscience.

What’s left is the shaggy-dog story of two destitute siblings – impossibly naive Nicholas (John P. Keller) and improbably chaste Kate (Allison McLemore) – as they stumble up the social ladder. Antagonist Uncle Ralph (Greg Thornton) is Scrooge with a twist of Judge Turpin, while sadistic schoolmaster Squeers and salacious Sir Hawk (both Richard B. Watson) seem to have stepped straight out of Monty Python Presents Oliver! – if such a thing existed.

Nickleby is a stagecraft showcase: a terrific turntable set by Bert Scott, atmospheric lighting by Kevin Griffin, well-chosen wardrobe and wigs by Molly Walz and Jack A. Smith, all coordinated by unsung stage manager Stacy Renee Norwood with what must be Herculean effort. All the technicians and thespians deserve standing ovations. My issue is with the way they’ve been directed to embrace every opportunity for cartoonish comedy at the expense of honest emotion, turning Dickens’ satirical melodrama into a drama-free parody.

The audience never has time to fall asleep, thanks to the breakneck staging, wacky sound effects and bellowed narration. But every characterization is so buffoonish and broad that when a florid troupe of actors finally arrives, you can’t tell the hammy theatricals from the alleged aristocrats. Two fleeting moments of group movement speak poetically to the plight of the poor, but Dickens’ political purposes are otherwise absent. Only Steven James Anthony as the abused orphan Smike, buried beneath Halloween makeup and painful posture, is able to fully engage the audience’s empathy through his haunted eyes.

This production’s saving grace is that the cast and crew are almost all locals, rather than out-of-state imports. Local theatergoers have long known Orlando has enough artists to execute shows of any scale; if only they had a better production to prove it. So raise a glass to Dickens, but don’t allow anyone to make you feel unsupportive of theater for refusing to swallow Shakes’ spoonful of brimstone and molasses.

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