Tasked with adapting Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby for the stage, playwright David Edgar faced an epic challenge: How do you keep a sprawling 19th-century tale of adventure, evil schemes, and virtue triumphant afloat, all 65 chapters of it? The original audience could read the story chapter by chapter over a span of months. Edgar had to give it to his audience in two doses. No stranger to double doses -- after all, he gave us the kaleidoscopic Continental Divide in just such a way a few years back -- he broke it up into a whirling, fast-paced Part One, where the characters were introduced and led to trouble, and then a darker, more melodramatic Part Two, where they were thrown squarely into trouble's deep end. CalShakes did an exemplary job with Part One; now it maintains the momentum with the twistier, more complex Part Two.
In the first half, we met a city's worth of vivid characters and saw them set in motion. The virtuous Nicklebys, recently bereft of their paterfamilias, called upon his miserly brother Ralph for aid. The two children separated to find work, then ran afoul of various ne'er-do-wells. When we left Nicholas, he and his friend Smike were triumphing with a touring theater company in Portsmouth, while back in London Kate was fending off the advances of the libertine Sir Mulberry Hawk. Part One ended on a high note, but there were intimations of the distress to come.
If Part One was A Collection of Extraordinary Characters, Part Two could be subtitled A Series of Extraordinary Coincidences and Perils. Freshly returned to London, Nicholas happens to walk into the swank establishment where Hawk is holding forth about his plans for Kate, meets the philanthropic brothers Cheeryble, and falls in love with the same woman his uncle is scheming to procure for the wretched, reptilian Arthur Gride. This installment is more menacing all around: Ralph grows ever meaner and less rational, there's more violence, and Catherine Castellanos appears as the supercreepy Peg Sliderskew. We see the miseries of the debtors' prison, and watch Kate get hemmed in by Hawk's smooth viciousness.
Edgar uses Part Two to get at the heart of Dickens' story about the corruptive power of capital. "If they both affect to despise the power of money, I shall show them what it is," growls Ralph when the antagonism between he and the Nickleby children is brought into the open, and codirectors Sean Daniels and Jonathan Moscone bring the point home with the haunting use of a chorus and choreographic touches such as using women as horses and draping the denizens of the debtors' prison like ghosts.
Some of the relationships that made Part One so delightful are done with -- we never see Mr. and Mrs. Squeers rutting together, or Danny Scheie swirling his coat coquettishly at Castellanos as the two play the Mantalinis. But Joan Mankin appears as a new character, Gride, with a laugh like a vulture gargling marbles as he fantasizes about "pretty, dainty, and bewitching little creature" Madeline. And instead of Mantalinis, we get Wititterlys -- Nicholas Pelczar's bouncing Henry and his dragonish missus, a snarling, snapping, swooning Mia Tagano. Tagano is a stitch as Julia Wititterly, the social climber who hires Kate as a companion and then takes Hawk's side against her.
The first play also was very much about Smike, while this one is very much about Ralph. The relationship between these two is ultimately the axis upon which the whole work turns -- Smike is goodness, even more so than Nicholas, with his anger-management problem and his occasional lapses. Smike has nothing, not even his health. He is grateful for everything he is given, every bit of love or bread, whereas Ralph has everything, in the material sense; at one point he speaks of his ability to buy the prettiest women, the adoration of other men, and so on -- but it clearly does him no good. As Dickens wrote of the older man's descent, Ralph finally finds "everything crumbled and fallen upon him, and he beaten down beneath the ruins and grovelling in the dust."
Part Two tells us more about the tenor of the time. This is not the cheerful fancy-dress London of the Dickens Faire, but a dark and often desperate place where the swollen rich shoulder past the abject poor and a person's downfall could lie around the nearest corner. A chorus reappears occasionally to describe the Nickleby men, Nicholas and his uncle Ralph, wending through the crowded streets, and to expound upon "how much injustice, wrong, and misery there was." A different sensibility about death and its inevitability is spelled out when the Nicklebys take a friend home to die. While the moment is incredibly sad, the chorus explains that there is no railing against fate. Disease is rampant and duelling is the logical way to resolve an argument, making dying at gunpoint no more remarkable than purchasing a new coat.
There are delights to be found here, but they are different from those of the first part, subtle and sometimes elegiac. The romance between Miss La Creevy and Tim Linkinwater is dear. There is more singing, but it's sad and tender (Mrs. Grudden singing "Farewell My Dear" awkwardly to the smallest pianoforte ever made; a lone boy singing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" to stay warm). Although the end is triumphant, it is made clear that much has been lost. There's a lot of ambiguity -- the boys breaking out of Dotheboys Hall don't all fare well, for example -- and sacrifice keeps poking slender fingers through the mesh of the play (Lord Verisopht agreeing to a duel for a woman's honor; Madeline preparing to marry Gride to save her father). All in all, while it lacks the wild joys and some of the crispness of Part One, Part Two is of a deeper and still gratifying flavor and a fitting, Shakespearean conclusion to the cycle.
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