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Photo by Johnny Knight
By Jonald Jude Reyes
In Silk Road Rising and Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s co-produced GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Playwright Tanika Gupta finds the right formula to adapt Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel through an Indian perspective. Gupta chooses to keep the play within the same timeframe, yet transfers the characters to India which brings focus to the country undergoing British rule. This adds poignancy to the plot as our protagonist, Pip, seeks for something more than an impoverished life. Is it to become an English gentleman? Is it to impress and win the heart of a woman he yearns for? Or is it something bigger than he can only aspire to?
This 3-hour performance is a coming of age tale where we see a 12-year old orphan boy grow into a young man. Anand Bhatt (Pip) has the great awareness & commitment to modulate his voice and physicality for each phase of Pip’s life. The opening scene shows us a young boy getting mixed up with Magwitch (Robert Hardaway), a convict from Africa, and getting scared into bringing him food & a file. As Gupta sticks to Dickens’ attributions of these characters, Bhatt finds a great balance, showing us the young boy’s fear laced with curiosity. When Pip brings Magwitch food & drink, he wants to know more about the convict, as if searching to see what other life is beyond his small Bengali village. Hardaway’s stage presence is powerful, and the actor knows how to control it as we see it through a fight with another convict.
Magwitch is taken away, and Pip carries on his routine lifestyle to later be summoned by Miss Havisham (Linda Gillum), a wealthy old white woman. He is hesitant, but through the force of his sister, Mrs. Gargery (Alka Nayyar), and guidance of her husband, Joe Gargery (Anish Jethmalani), he makes his way. At Havisham’s eerie estate, Pip meets her adopted daughter, Estella (Netta Walker) and he falls into a deep infatuation which later grows into love. Their meeting is truly the seed that propels Pip into his search for something more meaningful for his life.
The way each character approaches Pip exemplifies and heightens how special he is. Everyone wants what’s best for him, yet Pip must figure out his own internal struggle to find some form of satisfaction. Jethmalani and Bhatt have a good chemistry together as Jethmalani shows us a heartwarming side which flourishes a genuine father & son dynamic between the two. Nayyar as Mrs. Gargery has the proper consistency, belittling Pip while still aligning with tough love versus an abusive contempt. With these two and village friend, Biddy (Rasika Ranganathan), establishing his roots, we can see their pride in living their lifestyle, to which they impose on Pip.
This is where Pip feels stuck and wants more. His visits to Havisham’s give him more time to love Estella and add more fuel to his want to escape. Gillum’s Havisham is grounded, yet has moments where the audience may not be sure to be scared or sorry for her. Walker is wonderful at keeping Estella a bit deceptive with side glances and unacknowledged smiles at Pip. Her elite, proper stance comes with enough coldness that it develops into a mind game for Pip. He comes to feel he needs to increase his status in order to impress her. His want is fortunately met when well-known lawyer Jaggers (Roderick Peeples) takes him away to become an English gentleman as advised by an anonymous benefactor.
Co-Directed by Lavina Jadhwani and Nick Sandys, the medium-sized stage is well used. Through Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting, we feel the cold ambiance of a Havisham mansion and the refreshing riverside of a Bengali village where Pip and Biddy enjoy each other’s’ company. Yeaji Kim’s projected images layered over the stage always adds a significant accent. And the smooth transitions between scenes makes the play seamless in moving forward and helps to keep the energy flowing.
The concept as a whole is successful. Pip’s transformation is relatable to modern America, where immigrants feel the need to become more American. The characters of GREAT EXPECTATIONS weigh heavy and thick in backstory which gives a lot for the actors to deliver, and they do in superb fashion. The collaboration between Silk Road Rising and Remy Bumppo Theatre looks to be in sync, and hopefully they can continue to produce more works together.