Chicago Theater Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Strawdog Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 12, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Preferring acting over setting, Gale Childs Daly’s joyously theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age masterpiece uses six actors to play almost 40 characters. Only swift costume changes, vocal alterations and revolving set pieces confirm the variety of this sprawling novel. In 130 minutes, Strawdog Theatre’s swift-moving (and sometimes too rapid-fire) Great Expectations traces young orphan Pip’s journey from a blacksmith shop in the provinces to the so-called heart of London society. There are also two very Dickensian salutes to the histrionic excess of Victorian stagecraft–a burlesque of Hamlet as well as a Christmas pantomime complete with singing tars and their buxom mollies.

Megan Kohl, Amanda Drinkall, Michael Tipeli (lying down), Kyle Gibson, John Taflan, and John Ferrick in GREAT EXPECTATIONS at Strawdog Theatre.

As they turn out, Pip’s “great expectations” are highly conditional and built on a lie. His departure from the loving foster family of Joe Gargery, the shy and sturdy blacksmith, and the lad’s journey to London, where a sudden bequest allows him to hob nob with swells and dandies, is an object lesson in–and a true test of–love and loyalty: Pip learns that good fortune is accidental, snobbery and gratitude cannot consort, and, cynicism aside, no good deed goes unrewarded.

Kyle A. Gibson and Michael Tepeli in GREAT EXPECTATIONS at Strawdog Theatre.

For Pip to break free from false values and a sense of unearned entitlement requires him to fully grasp the malevolent intentions of his supposed benefactress, the ghoulish aristocrat Miss Havisham (who seeks revenge against all men for being jilted at the altar), and her beautiful but warped ward Estella whose cold heart must be warmed by Pip’s lifelong ardor. This subplot is intricately connected with another in London regarding the safety of Pip’s unknown savior. It all ends with an exciting showdown on the River Thames.

John Taflan, Megan Kohl, Michael Tepeli, and Amanda Drinkall in GREAT EXPECTATIONS at Strawdog Theatre.

For anyone unfamiliar with the novel, Jason Gerace’s fast-flowing, quicksilver-supple and scene-changing two-act staging may be daunting, the more so for the minimalist trappings of this efficient enterprise. For all its traffic control, involving six industrious performers (with Mike Tepeli as the ever-astonished Pip), it’s as much a radio play as theater. (The other excellent players are Amanda Drinkall, John Ferrick, Kyle A. Gibson, Megan Kohl and John Taflan with Hilary Holbrook providing the music.) Of course, since this is Dickens, it feels perfectly right for the holidays, just as his holiday novels have so perfectly stamped the season.

Amanda Drinkall and Michael Tipeli in GREAT EXPECTATIONS at Strawdog Theatre.

photos by Chris Ocken

Great Expectations
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway St.
scheduled to end on December 14, 2013
EXTENDED to December 22, 2013
for tickets, call 773.528.9696 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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