Theater Review: MR. DICKENS’ HAT (Northlight Theatre in Skokie)

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by Dan Zeff on December 12, 2021

in Theater-Chicago

English novelist Charles Dickens once actually used his hat to carry water to victims of a train wreck in Victorian England. Playwright Michael Hollinger uses that odd historical incident as the slender reed that’s the core of his comedy Mr. Dickens’ Hat at the Northlight Theatre.

The Hollinger play runs about 95 minutes without an intermission. The first half is meandering and tiresome, but the final half does a dramatic and theatrical U-turn, tamping down on the cutesy humor and lame narrative in favor of genuine human feeling, fast paced action, and legitimate comedy.

Mr. Dickens’ Hat takes place in and around a hat shop in Victorian London, the shop’s prize being the Dickens hat, proudly owned by proprietor Mr. Garbleton. The hat is the lodestar of Fleece, the play’s villain, who plots to steal the curio and sell it to a rich buyer.

After its laborious first portion, dramatic interest elevates with the attempt by the bumbling Fleece and his equally bumbling cohort Gnat to filch the hat from the shop. But the two nasties face an unexpected adversary in the shop’s clerk, young Kit who is laboring to save enough money to buy her father out of a notorious British debtors prison. The scenes in the gloomy prison between Kit and her father (affectively played by Sandys) evoke a somber realistic portrait of the debtors prison abuses in Victorian England and suggest there is room for more social commentary to enrich the script.

The production’s plusses reside in David Catlin’s high energy staging and the acting skills of Cordelia Dewdney (Kit), Nick Sandys (Fleece), Mark David Kaplan (Garbleton, Gnat, and the voice of a noisome caged parrot named Polly), and Kasey Foster (Mrs. Prattle, Garbleton’s resourceful wife to be). The ensemble is completed by Ruchir Khazanchi and Christine Bunuan, who are are lumbered with a half dozen two dimensional supporting characters responsible for much of the first half tedium.

The playwright has enhanced his narrative with a selection of a capella choral songs spread throughout the play to enhance the Victorian atmosphere, which is also sustained by a large wardrobe of period costumes by Sully Ratke. The physical production additionally profits from William Boles’s set, with an upper level that converts into a dangerous railroad bridge that allows Sandys and Dewdney opportunities for some nimble gymnastics as Fleece and Kit battle for the Dickens while a train roars in. The sound design by Andre Pluess and Jason Lynch’s lighting are a excellent, especially during the stirring bridge scene.

The show is recommended for ages 8 and up, though younger viewers may be impatient with the slow first half and keeping the many supporting characters straight. But adult audiences could have the same difficulty. Mr. Dickens’ Hat is a world premiere and the Northlight may have visions of turning the show into a holiday staple in future seasons. If the early portion of “Mr. Dickens’ Hat” can be invigorated with more action and genuine humor and forgo the nudge-nudge wink-wink jokes that fall flat, the theater may have an annual set piece. The performances by Dewdney, Foster, Kaplan, and especially Sandys would provide a solid performing foundation, and the director and designers definitely have done their part.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Mr. Dickens’ Hat
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd in Skokie
ends on January 2, 2022
for tickets ($30-$89), call 847.673.6300 or visit Northlight Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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