Dickens with a Twist

Brevity is not a word customarily used to describe the works of Charles Dickens. Writing in serial form, and essentially paid by the bulk, Dickens’s wealth and celebrity were the result of some of the most sprawling narratives in English literature. And so, condensing the most familiar qualities of the Dickensian formula into a spoof of little more than an hour in length is no small feat. Impressively, Emerging Artists Theatre’s production of Penny Penniworth is able to do just that, with good fun and more than a few laughs. Written by Chris Weikel, Penny Penniworth hews (for the most part) closely the requisite Dickens tale. After Penny’s true love is banished, Penny and mother become destitute. An anonymous benefactor provides for Penny while a relentless villain tries to marry her. Ultimately, secret identities are revealed, heirs are uncovered, villains are vanquished and loved ones return from oblivion. The Dickens recipe is unmistakable, which makes its ingredients ripe for riffing. Just as the Broadway production of The 39 Steps was a romping homage to the Hitchcock brand, so is Penny Penniworth to the Dickens brand.

Mark Finley directs a game ensemble of actors, made up of Christopher Borg, Jamie Heinlein, Lee Kaplan and Ellen Reilly. Each actor takes on an array of characters, from Mr. Pinchnose to Mrs. Havasnort to the Dodgeful Archer. Each actor inhabits these roles with great gusto, flavor, and dialects aplenty. They succeed in playing the buffoonery without cheapening it to the point of tedium. Outside of what’s called for in the text, they do not wink through their roles and the bits they are asked to play. With material like this, such restraint is refreshing.

Some of this credit should go to Finley, who keeps the action moving while maintaining the script’s clarity. He is aided by Tim McMath’s functional set and, in no small part, by G. Benjamin Swope’s lighting design. The play spans a number of years and transitions to countless locations. Swope’s efficient design helps the audience make these transitions along with the play.

The production makes little use of props. Morphing from one character to another, actors rely mostly on vocal and physical changes. The ensemble no doubt pulls this off, making the most of the costume each wears throughout by simply modifying some aspect of it to fit their shifting characterizations. Still, while the play is admirable for its adherence to economy, there are points that crave for more fun to be had with wild wigs or distinctive props that would playfully enhance the outrageous brio in some of Dickens’s archetypes. Such flair and variety may help prevent a flat sparseness that sometimes causes the play to sag. The production is at its best, such as with a splendid sequence involving a costume ball, when it incorporates more of these elements.

Minor quibbles aside, Penny Penniworth makes for a brisk and delightful evening. Even if you are a novice to Dickens, the play should still be accessibly pleasurable. And if you are a Dickens aficionado, be assured that some very juicy, very un-Dickensian surprises await.

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