The Real Brit Magic 

If you see one (make that two) plays this year, make it Nicholas Nickleby.

Forget that Potter book. Area libraries and booksellers should brace themselves for an onslaught of theatergoers jonesing for a different pure-hearted British lad struggling against adversity, Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, because the stage version of the novel currently playing at CalShakes is quite simply phenomenal. Also, it's in two parts. And we don't get the second part for weeks yet. And if you don't yet know what happens after chapter 25 -- which is about where British playwright David Edgar (Continental Divide) cunningly put the break, at a high point after Nicholas' triumphant stage debut -- you might be inclined to cheat and read ahead a little.

Not that reading the novel should spoil the play for anyone. Edgar originally created this adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, and then it was made into a well-received TV movie, but this is the first time the stage version has been professionally produced on the West Coast. "Is this the 87-hour version?" a friend asks. Well, sort of. Edgar was determined to keep everything in, and while eventually he had to let go of the Kenwigs, there's so much of everything else -- the Nicklebys and Smike and Newman Noggs and Miss La Creevy and swordfightin' and romance and comeuppance -- that a few cuts here and there are forgivable. So Part One is only three hours and fifteen minutes long.

Sure, that could be a butt-numbing three hours fifteen. But Dickens' abundance, his "bustle," is so gleefully embraced by co-directors Jonathan Moscone and Sean Daniels and their massive (and massively talented) cast that the time zips by in a perfectly delicious production that revels in both Dickens' wordplay and his compassion. The story of a family set adrift on the tide of the Industrial Revolution, Nicholas Nickleby was Dickens' first honest novel -- his books up until then had been more collections of sketches -- and, some feel, his best. Here it's a play that uses a couple dozen of the Bay Area's best actors playing close to two hundred roles in a swirl of oatmeal-colored costumes, old-fangled wind-effect machines, and smoothly moving, skeletal set pieces.

Young Nicholas and his sister Kate have just lost their father. Well-educated country people, they head to London with their dotty mother to throw themselves on the mercy of their uncle Ralph, a cold-hearted but very successful moneylender. Ralph wants nothing to do with this clumsily affectionate brood, and sets about separating them and using them in various ways to further his own schemes. Nicholas ("Hot from school with everything he learned fermenting in his head and nothing fermenting in his pocket") becomes assistant to the headmaster of a Yorkshire sty misrepresented as a boys' school; Kate is used as bait for a predatory client of Ralph's; and their mother mostly frets in a vile little room in the East End. The story as written has Nicholas finding his way back to London with a friend of mysterious provenance and trying to rescue his family. But it'll take a series of adventures before that happens, adventures where all of the Nicklebys and their inherent decency are tested against lechers, thieves, and miscreants.

So much of Dickens' novel, which was originally serialized in a magazine in 1838 and 1839, cries to be read aloud -- or performed onstage. Otherwise we might not catch some of the wordplay, such as the name "Dotheboys Hall," the school run by the brutish Wackford Squeers (Andy Murray) and based on a real school, William Shaw's Bowes Academy, which Dickens and his illustrator Hablot Browne visited on a fact-finding trip in 1838. Sadly, Dotheboys isn't an exaggeration. Yorkshire apparently was full of questionable boarding schools that helped families be rid of unwanted or illegitimate children. At Bowes, boys had died or gone blind from beatings, malnutrition, and general neglect. Dickens gets all that, and gives us Smike (played here stunningly by Clifton Guterman), a twisted, pathetic castoff and Nicholas' truest friend. When Nicholas finally strikes a blow against Squeers' abuse of his charges, a series of events is set in motion that needs two nights at the theater (or one marathon day-with-dinner-break, of which CalShakes will have three) to fully resolve.

This is what theater is supposed to be. This is the definition of delight, one of those "what about when ... ?" shows where every time you think about it afterwards, some memorable moment comes to mind. Delia MacDougall as the cross-eyed Fanny Squeers in her clownishly applied makeup, howling "Ah hay-uht you!" after Nicholas' retreating back. The audience throwing pastries (if an actor hands you a muffin, don't eat it). The Infant Phenomenon, a child kept small by a regular diet of late nights and gin, tripping gracelessly across the stage in a painful parody of ballet. The protean Dan Hiatt cracking his knuckles as Newman Noggs, which sounds like it should qualify as a stage combat move. Joan Mankin as sweet, batty Miss La Creevy, squeezing a lot of extra syllables into the words "portraiture and miniature" and bemoaning the difficulty of catching a likeness when one must focus on "keeping down noses and taking out teeth altogether."

In fact, it's hard to focus on any one memorable performance or moment, because they crowd together in such profusion. Dickens must have known Danny Scheie would be born two hundred-some years later to play the foppish Mantalini (who says of his adored and much put-upon bride, "Why is it crunching up its face like that?") with the perfect voice for the role. Ralph Nickleby isn't quite so evil, yet; James Carpenter takes the role, as stiff and proper as you can imagine and then some, but still with enough malice to suggest that he'll get worse in the second part. Domenique Lozano is perfectly triangular, or perhaps conical, as Mrs. Squeers, clutching the maleficient spoon with which she administers molasses and sulfur to the hapless inmates (and if that scene, with the boys wiping their faces on their shapeless shirts, doesn't put you off molasses forever, nothing will). Jud Williford's John Browdie is wonderful as he barely controls his temper. Watch for him -- he'll be back in the second part.

As will many of these characters, even the ones you might think properly disposed of, for in the second half certain persons seek their revenge, bwah ha ha. Part One ends on a high note, even as the clever juxtaposition of Nicholas' stage debut and Kate's despair suggests that things will get harder for the Nicklebys before they get better. If you see only one play this year, this is the one. And then go see Part Two. Okay, so that's two plays. If you see only two plays this year, make sure that they're Nicholas Nickleby Parts One and Two. J.K. Rowling's witches and wizards can wait; this is real British magic.


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