Ledcat and I were in Oakland last weekend for the opening night of The Old Curiosity Shop by the PICT Theatre company. So, I have never read this novel by Charles Dickens and now I never will. I actually logged onto my Carnegie Library ‘Libby’ app during intermission to remove the book from my hold list.
This plot takes us on a winding trip through London and the English countryside as Nell and her grandfather flee the evils of the City to find safe haven from his creditors. The play takes liberties with the storyline, but essentially leaves us with this truth – women are better off dead per Dickens who seems obsessed with perpetual young beauty as well as the Madonna/whore complex. Women, even the good and decent women, even the smart and hardworking women, are at the mercy of men and the larger vagaries of fate. Women bury their babies because of unemployment, women explain their own hardships, women rescue (or try to) the men, women are trapped in marriages, women are fated to pine for ne’er do wells.
Nell and her grandfather flee and flee and flee some more, then end up with their own house and then Nell dies in the arms of her loyal protector, Kit. People actually think she’s better off dead than alive. No one said that about the dead baby earlier in the play.
You will find all of your classic theatrical characters portrayed with great gusto and quick costume changes by the cast, including a Punch and Judy troupe, a kindhearted barkeep, a drunken doctor, a poor but kindly schoolteacher, and lots of desperate creatures eeking out a living, always dependent upon the choices of others, especially employers.
The production was bolstered by magnificently creepy performances from the villains, including Martin Giles as Quilp, Karen Baum as Sally Brass, and James Fitzgerald as Brass. Their individual atrocities accumulated to the point where no redemption was conceivable, but the ferocity of their performers made me want to see more of thoroughly despicable characters.
Admittedly, this play his some triggers for me – child abuse, sexual abuse, violence, poverty, relying upon the kindness of men, mental illness, and gambling. Throw in the harrowing experiences in the industrial ‘coke’ town and I was struggling a little to remain in my seat.
The play was not quite true to the plot (I did read the short version), but the pitiful, bedraggled victim characters aka the good people like Nell were lost in the melodrama, their roles so flat and one-dimensional that I cared far more about what happened to the desolute drunk (an amusing Jordan Ross Weinhold) than almost anyone else. The actors were fine, but lacked the intensity and gusto of the villaims.
None of this is the fault of the production and most of it is clearly the fault of Charles Dickens and the peculiarities of his time. This production brings to life a view of the world that feels more dated than perhaps we’d like to admit. Nell has zero agency along with most of the women. Corporations destroy environments, housing is shoddy, rascals are rewarded and we are immensely aware of the lechery of men for very young women.
I want to know what happens to Sally Brass after she flees the authorities. That would make for an interesting book.
The set is large and the production make good use of stomping and fake door knobs and and paths that lead north, but I wasn’t thrilled to be in the front row and subject to so much spittle. I get it, my acting friends, I get it. But I’ll move back a few rows next. The accents were also all over the place. I’m certainly no purist, but I think my increasing fondness for BBC productions has affected my ear.
The Old Curiosity Shop continues through December 15 at the WQED Fred Rogers Studio in Oakland. They have some interesting opportunities to learn more about the show view pre/post performance lectures even a Food Truck Friday night.