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The Picnic Papers 

Cal Shakes' outdoor, sprawling Nicholas Nickleby moves fast enough to hold your attention

Wednesday, Jul 27 2005
"To save the theater, the theater must be destroyed, the actors and actresses must all die of the plague. They poison the air, they make art impossible," the legendary Italian actor Eleanora Duse (1858-1924) once proclaimed. Ms. Duse is widely credited for bringing a more understated, realistic acting style to the stage in comparison to many of her contemporaries (e.g., Sarah Bernhardt), but -- if the above outburst is anything to go by -- the rules that governed the actor's comportment onstage did not necessarily apply off it. At any rate, Ms. Duse thought that the conventional spectacle-obsessed theater of her day had lost its sincerity and freshness. So she called for a radical change: "We should return to the Greeks, play in the open air; the drama dies of stalls and boxes and evening dress, and people who come to digest their dinner."

Forget about going to the theater to digest; what Duse didn't consider when calling for her outdoor drama revolution is the fact that people frequent open-air venues these days as much to see a show as to eat. Associated for better or for worse with picnics, grass stains, and breathtaking views, today's alfresco performance experiences are joyously communal, all-inclusive affairs. That being said, the business of quaffing fizzy wine and gobbling strawberries on a warm summer's night with friends frequently divides, if not completely eclipses, most viewers' interest in what's happening onstage. And as a result of the open-air theater's manifold social attractions, plays are often reduced to fairground sideshows. Under these conditions, the laboriously paced and appallingly overacted productions that make up the average provincial Midsummer Night's open-air theater experience are anything but a Dream.

Thankfully, it doesn't always have to be that way, as the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park festival in New York and the Open Air Theatre company's annual shows in London's Regent's Park have long proved. Closer to home, California Shakespeare Theater's 25th anniversary production of Nicholas Nickleby (Part One), adapted from Charles Dickens' 1838 novel by British playwright David Edgar, manages to wrestle the audience's attention away from rustling picnics and the rising moon through ingeniously theatrical staging and an alacrity of pace that makes you almost forget you've been sitting on a cold seat for more than three hours.

Dickens' novel -- which follows the seesaw fortunes of the 19-year-old Nicholas Nickleby and his sister, Kate, following the death of their kindly but financially bankrupt father -- was initially adapted by Edgar for a 1980 London production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which subsequently transferred to Broadway before garnering multiple Tony Awards and being televised on PBS. Cal Shakes' two-part production, with its 24 actors and 6-1/2-hour running time (both parts together), is a "miniature" version of the original, which employed 48 actors and ran at close to nine hours. Edgar himself pared down his text for Cal Shakes.

Facing challenges that would have made the Royal Shakespeare Company jump out of its codpiece -- including Northern California's unpredictable summer climate, the wandering attentions of outdoor audiences, and the pygmy (yet sadly standard) 3-1/2-week rehearsal period -- this open-air Nickleby owes much of its magic and success to the combined creativity of directors Jonathan Moscone and Sean Daniels. Edgar's adaptation, which swings back and forth between different locations, is fluidly rendered through seamless physical and emotional changes. Each place has a contrasting mood: Scenes in Portsmouth, where Nicholas and his protégé, Smike, find themselves employed by a band of touring actors, are jubilant and light; meanwhile, Nicholas' spell as a teacher at Dotheboys Hall, the rat-infested, freezing poorhouse masquerading as a respected Yorkshire boys' school, is oppressive.

The staging is wildly inventive. At one point, ensemble members clamber onto a moving wooden deck to create a stagecoach trundling across the country; at another, they evoke the grim Yorkshire weather by cranking an old-fashioned wooden wind machine and dusting Nicholas and his companions with what looks like flour through large sieves from above. The elegance of Neil Patel's flexible, modular set-design with its large wooden "picture frames" and moving blocks captures the beguiling Orinda landscape through a theaterlike proscenium. In so doing, the design hints at one of the production's main conceits: namely, the transparency of Edgar's Nickleby as a work of theater, an experience in which both cast and audience are complicit.

Although the staging is vitally fresh, strangely enough, it is the drive for complicity that hampers this outdoor Nickleby. Edgar conceived his original adaptation of the play for indoor audiences, creating a bond between the stage and the stalls by having the characters narrate what's going on alongside the action. For example, when Stephen Barker Turner as Nicholas sits down and looks depressed and degraded, a narrator says the line: "And Nicholas sat down, so depressed and self-degraded that if death could have come upon him then he would have been happy to meet it." Although this Brechtian device might work perfectly in the cloistered surroundings of a conventional theater, where vigilant directors more actively discourage overacting amid gentler acoustics, the tendency for actors to overdo it outdoors is much greater. And the fruity performances in this production make the narrated parts of the text feel about as natural as a relaxed smile on Nicholas' surly Scrooge of an uncle, Ralph Nickleby.

It's not that all the acting is bad. The ensemble scenes are lively and magnetic, and individuals -- most notably Dan Hiatt as Ralph Nickleby's oddball clerk, Newman Noggs, and James Carpenter, in an almost sympathetic portrayal of Noggs' tightfisted employer -- manage to keep it down. But the general high pitch of the performances means that every sentence is delivered as if it were the punch line to an extremely funny and original joke. This overacting backfires in a number of ways, not least of which is rendering Edgar's narrative technique almost unbearable: It has the unfortunate effect of undermining some of Dickens' most juicy scenes and characters -- the few that are supposed to be over the top.

Danny Scheie, for instance, is fabulously affected as the prissy milliner Mr. Mantalini, but his character stands out far less than he might in the melee of affectation around him. Similarly, in the face of so much bravura, it's hard to tell if the extended play-within-a-play sequence in which the Crummles acting troupe incompetently stages a bastardized version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is supposed to be that way. As cast member and veteran Bay Area actor Joan Mankin puts it in her informative blog entry on the rehearsal process ( "What does it take to overdo or mispronounce or randomly gesticulate in a way that clues the audience in on the fact that you know you are doing it badly; actually not that you know it, but that you are doing it on purpose?" Alas, no one at Cal Shakes seems to have a good answer to Mankin's question.

If Duse were alive today, would she think the outdoor theater revolution had succeeded? On a literal level, she might not be so impressed with the bulk of the open-air fare available today. Figuratively speaking, Duse's desire to bring the theater "back to nature" was part of a broader movement toward substituting the 19th-century passion for spectacle with a more intensely psychological, bare-boards approach. So she'd probably get a kick out of Nicholas Nickleby, with its unabashed joyousness and imaginative staging. The question is: How would the diva react to all the eating and digesting going on in those midsummer parks at night?

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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