By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
A gambling grandfather (Patrick Conner) loses everything except the love of his granddaughter, Little Nell (Caroline Lucas), in Charles Dickens’s “The Old Curiosity Shop.”
Mrs. Jarley (Kendra McLaughlin) and her carnival barkers (Jonathan Visser and Ken Bolden) describe the tragic circumstances of Nell’s life, briefly narrating her tale.
Through our whimsical narrators, we quickly learn that the grandfather is on the verge of losing his shop to the sinister Mr. Quilp (Martin Giles) playing poker after dark (way before Jennifer Harman, Phil Laak and Daniel Negreanu made it cool).
Quilp wants the shop, the money and the granddaughter. It’s a sick package deal. Quilp is dark and twisted (physically and emotionally) and pines lustfully for the fourteen-year-old Nell. Let’s face it, this dude is creepy.
Quilp is often seen in the company of his lawyer, Brass (James FitzGerald) and a ragamuffin he simply calls Boy (Matt Henderson).
The grandfather has very few allies. His grandson, Nell’s brother Fred (Sean Lenhart), is after his nonexistent money. The grandfather and Nell only have the extremely loyal shop boy, Kit (Jacob Epstein), to count on.
When Fred is convinced his grandfather can’t help him, he confides in his best friend, Dick Swiveller (Jordan Ross Weinhold), that he has to leave town to escape his creditors.
The grandfather and Nell also flee in the middle of the night to escape Quilp’s clutches, but the villain does not give up easily. He begins his manhunt…er…um…girl-hunt. The vile man moves people around like chess pieces. He gets Dick Swiveller to a job working for Brass and his sister Sally (Karen Baum) in case Nell contacts him.
Meanwhile, Kit gets a job working for the law firm of Garland (Visser) and Witherden (Bolden), but Quilp finds a way to manipulate Kit with his treacherous underlings, Brass and his sister.
Out on the road, the old man and his granddaughter face all sorts of calamity. Luckily, a landlady (Kaitlin Kerr) takes them in. They are befriended by a schoolmaster (Sean Lenhart) who employs them as caretakers to the property surrounding his school.
All the while, Quilp gets one step closer to his prey.
“The Old Curiosity Shop” is filled with plot and character. There’s a lot going on. While it’s a lengthy show, it’s never tedious. It’s chock full of Dickensian wit and charm.
The cast is magnificent under Alan Stanford’s guiding hand.
Giles romps around as the villainous Quilp. There’s a glint in his eye as he beats back the Boy with a cane and slobbers over young Nell, relishing in his dastardly deeds. It’s a grand performance.
FitzGerald and Baum are incredible as the Brass siblings. FitzGerald’s Brass strongly correlates to our contemporary times. He’s Cohen to Quilp’s Trump, devilishly sycophantic until the worm turns and he is caught. Baum’s Sally is basically an Ebenezer Scrooge without the redemption.
Side note: There’s a prevailing theory that the nameless handmaiden, the Marchioness (Calema Graham), is the illegitimate offspring of a devious union between Sally Brass and Quilp. It’s icky enough to be true (as true as anything in this fantastical tale).
While the villains attempt to steal the show, there are some amazing turns among the heroes and those who live in the lines between good and evil.
Weinhold’s comic timing is impeccable. When Dick Swiveller has the unfortunate assignment of describing an apartment, he says, “They are very charming apartments, sir. They command an uninterrupted view of – of over the way, and they are within one minute’s walk of – of the corner of the street.”
Epstein’s Kip is marvelous. The young lad holds his own amongst a bevy of Equity actors. He is charming and charismatic.
Visser and Bolden do a remarkable job with their multiple roles, each, literally and figuratively, wearing many hats.
Joan Markert’s costumes are flawless. She captures 1850’s London raggedy and sooty style with an artistic flair.
The Christmas season is upon us, but, instead of seeing the same old Scrooge, mix up your Dickens a bit and go to “The Old Curiosity Shop.
“The Old Curiosity Shop” runs through December 15 at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio, 4802 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here.