Book-It Tackles Great Expectations

Seattle’s great book adaptor presents literature’s most lovelorn orphan.

By James Ross Gardner February 16, 2011

Pip synch The orphaned protagonist in Great Expectations (Lee Osorio), no matter the version, always gets the cold shoulder from Estella (Sylvie Davidson). Photo: courtesy Alan Alabastro.

We’re going to get into Book-It Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in a second, but first… poor Pip.

Poor, poor Pip. An escaped convict threatens to gut the orphaned protagonist like a mackerel. His big ugly sister seems to be under the impression she’s raising a punching bag rather than a younger sibling. And when Pip does catch a break—with a gig playing at some batty rich lady’s house—he’s ridiculed by the mansion’s pre-teen Succubus. And, battered house orphan that he is, he gets a crush on the girl.

Sure, he falls into some dough thanks to a mystery benefactor—which allows him to dodge a grimy future as a small town blacksmith. But even that turns to spoiled figgy pudding when Pip learns that the benefactor is Mr. Gut-An-Orphan himself, the escaped convict (who ends up being a pretty decent guy in the end, but still). Also, Christ, how many incarnations must a fictional character take on?

Western Civ has been reinventing Pip ever since Dickens penned the story a century and a half ago, most famously in the 1946 film adaptation of the novel (directed by David Lean). The film is a dark, surprisingly faithful and satisfying take on the book, and—bonus!—Alec “Obi-Wan Kenobi” Guinness plays Pip’s sidekick. But the farce is strong with this one: Grown-up Pip, in his 20s in the novel, is played by John Mills, then nearly 40.

Fast forward five decades—and a metric Pip load of BBC adaptations—and Ethan Hawke takes on the role opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in a modern update set in Manhattan. Then a slew of more made-for-TV versions. And then there’s South Park Pip, a recurring character on the Comedy Central cartoon who get’s his own episode in the show’s raunchy adaptation of the Dickens tale (see below).

Fortunately, Book-It’s Pip (Lee Osorio) seems just right. This is in part thanks to Osorio’s performance—studied, tortured, narrowed eyes telegraphing the character’s moral ambivalence—but also thanks to a superb script by Lucinda Stroud. The actors read expository lines straight from the novel, often referring to their own characters in the third person. (Watching the play, it’s tempting to pose a challenge: Could Book-It pull off an adaptation of any novel? Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian? Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park?)

The script, the minimal cast (nine actors, most playing more than one character), and the Spartan set (comprised mostly of benches and bed sheets) strip the story down to its thematic core in a way that not even Dickens, with his sometimes bloated, paid-per-word prose, was able to do.

What we’re left with, to turn in our minds long after we’ve poured out of the Seattle Center’s Center House Theatre and shouldered into the windswept, concrete landscape below the Space Needle, is the novel’s essence, its central themes of class struggle, unrequited love, and identity—identity reinvented again and again and again.

Okay, now is the time on Culture Fiend when we watch South Park’s take on Great Expectations

Great Expectations is at Center House Theatre through March 6. March 13.

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