Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What The Dickens?

Adapted, actually, for the stage.

"So whaddya think"?

He asked me this and my first response (though I didn’t say it out loud) was “What have you been smoking?"

 My friend (who had spent the past several years as Artistic Director for a handful of small theaters) suddenly had the idea that he wanted to direct an original version of "The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" on a sixteen-foot stage with no wings and no fly space and no budget and, gee, would I write it?

Dickens’ novel, is a tome with dozens of characters, plots and subplots such that putting it on stage could likely cause audiences to attain something akin to vertigo.  The Royal Shakespeare Company had done a version about a quarter of a century earlier and, despite leaving out vast chunks of the book, their version still ran over eight hours.  But something about the idea appealed to me:  it was a little like climbing Mount Everest; I wondered if I could actually pull off taming the beast into a single evening’s theatrical entertainment.  Thus motivated, I kissed my common sense goodbye and told Herr Director I'd give it a go.

I began reading and was reminded immediately how detailed Boz could be; he gives so many minute visual descriptions that it's a bit like looking at people through a microscope; his characters almost all border on the grotesque.  This, however, is a benefit for Nickleby which balances the melodramatic elements with wildly comedic ones.  The villainous are wretched to the core and the clowns are cartoonic to absurdity.  Kind of like politicians.

So there was no way to fit all the characters and adventures into a single evening of theater; the story would have to be shorn to its barest essentials, somehow without damaging the richness of the tale.  I felt a sense of relief and pleasure to discover what could be removed came fairly easily to me.  I also fell in love with some characters that no previous adaptation, to my recollection, had ever really exploited; they would be given life in mine.  Finally, I fashioned it into something that could be done with sixteen actors in two and a half hours.

While I was busy writing, my friend quit his job as Artistic Director for the theater where we were originally going to produce the show.  So we now had a script but nowhere to bring it to life.  Thus, he now suggested we produce the show ourselves.  I suggested we chug hemlock, light ourselves on fire and leap off a precipice.  As much as I liked and respected the guy, I wasn’t anxious to get involved in as risky a financial venture as theater.  But I was talked into it and I now have new-found respect for producers of small theater.  There isn’t a drama you could put on the stage to equate the drama that went on to get this show up before an audience:  artistic differences, broken set pieces and an endless parade of gowns and frockcoats that either didn’t fit or didn’t work, bringing new meaning to the phrase “costume drama”.   It never seemed to end. 

Thankfully, we were blessed with a monstrously talented and professional cast.  Regardless of all the other horrors and drudgeries of producing the show, working with those actors was a treat and watching them turn into the characters before my eyes was always a thrilling experience; the performances each night were truly the prize. 

Although, of course, there was even a caveat to that which came from the theater directly below ours; a theater where a bona fide Freak Show played (this was Hollywood, after all).  This meant that on Friday nights, always about the time of our most heart-wrenching death scene, we could hear the Firecracker Man exploding himself below.   

Talk about going out with a bang.

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