Charles Dickens Unleashed
Schmaltzy Victorian costume-drama improv, gamely and rather adroitly rendered
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Jan. 1, 2010
Charles Dickens Unleashed
The Hideout Theatre
"Unleashed" is precisely right, as in "Cry Dickens and let slip the dogs of improv!" This just-passed December brought to the Hideout Theatre a Victorian serial drama in full costume, featuring the madcaps of Parallelogramophonograph and their cronies performing a brand-new Dickensian tale of orphans-and-their-plucky-triumphs each night, with each show made up, naturally, on the spot.
We were fortunate to catch the final show of the run; we offer this review for your interest and in case the troupe decides – yes, please, just a bit more – to bring the format back next Yuletide.
There were six (or was it seven?) improvisers creating tangle-plotted, long-form antics from the audience suggestion of "bookbinder" as the protagonist's occupation. The story raveled and unraveled onstage boisterously and goofily, the players committing scenes in pairs, trios, and quartets, relaying the story of a young adopted boy (Kareem Badr, resplendent in fancy suit and Pickwickian muttonchops) turned out of his strict and well-to-do adoptive family to seek his own way in the big dirty city of London. Helping guide the narrative, when necessary or opportune, was the Narrator, the wisely chosen Curtis Luciani: He interceded during momentary lulls or when inspiration struck him, shifting the coalescing plot and sparking scenes with lunatic gambits, moving the action toward wherever his and the players' choices would finally take it.
(It was a skillful give-and-take, the interplay between the narrator and the players, especially given the subject – the works of Mr. Dickens – being paid a twisted homage. As the Statesman's own arts critic Jeanne Claire van Ryzin has cannily noted, the progression of the improv worked much like the progression of an actual Dickens serial, in which that author would often pull wacky coincidences from nowhere and warp plot and circumstance as necessary to gain the most powerful, emotional, audience-impacting punch.)
Thus did we learn of the orphan Michael Leatherbinder's tribulations in the harsh factory where books were stripped of leather (to be fashioned into whips!) and of his rescue by an officer of the London police force, of his growing romance with that police officer's daughter, of his eventual revenge against the evil proprietor of the whip factory, and of the discovery that said proprietor was, in fact, his own presumed-dead father! Of course he was!
So, yes, this evening of impromptu narrative – with exceptional performances by Valerie Ward, Mark Majcher, and Roy Janik – was enjoyed by all. Well, except for one dubious, frowning couple in the front row who seem to have been expecting Larry the Cable Guy's Git-R-Done Xmas Hoedown instead. Cor blimey, no: This was schmaltzy Victorian costume-drama improv, gamely and rather adroitly rendered – and God bless us, every one.