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Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Fast-Paced Production of ‘Great Expectations’

Apr. 11, 2017
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Molly Rhode knew from an early age that she wanted to be in the performing arts. Her acting career started out of jealousy for her cousin Tim. “My parents took me to see a community play that my aunt was in, and my cousin was in it too, so I said, wait a minute? Kids can be in these too?” she recalls. Soon after that, at the age of 10, she made her acting debut in the Falls Patio Players production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Now, as an actress and director, she is one of the busiest theater artists in Milwaukee.

Rhode’s current project is directing the new Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production of Great Expectations, a play adapted by Milwaukee’s Gale Childs Daly from the novel by Charles Dickens. The theatrical aesthetic of Childs Daly’s adaptation of the famous epic coming-of-age story is well suited for Rhode, she said. “I love story theater adaptations. I’m always interested in creating theatrical solutions so when you come to the show, it’s a unique experience, and I have the opportunity to do that here,” she explained.

In Dickens’ tale, Pip, a lonely orphan in search of his place in the world, meets characters across the spectrum of 19th-century London society. As a child, he’s kind to a desperate convict and that favor winds up changing his life in surprising ways. The story suggests that in a world that seems haphazard, moral choices do matter.

With only six actors to play more than 30 characters, the cast is busy for the entire show. They are switching back and forth from character to narrator, changing clothes, doing different voices; there isn’t even time for them to leave the stage in between scenes. It might seem overwhelming at first but it’s not, Rhode said. “This particular company is so talented. It’s a luxury. They’re so gifted that it’s not confusing; they make it easy to connect all the pieces of the puzzle as the story unfolds.”

Actor Josh Krause makes his Milwaukee Chamber Theatre debut as Pip. Jonathan Gillard Daly, Karen Estrada, Chiké Johnson, Deborah Staples and Zach Thomas Woods will play all the other characters. Violinist Andrew Crowe will provide onstage accompaniment. 

The script’s fast pace is what makes a play this broad in scope possible, according to Rhode. “The momentum of it just keeps rolling. Doing it creatively makes it a lot more fun than if we had a cast of 40 actors,” she said.

Even Lisa Schlenker’s set design, based on Dickens’ writer’s study, is minimal. It consists of a few coat racks, bookshelves, a desk and a couple of chairs, and the play relies more on the actors to set the scene than on the physical scenery. Rhode said she likes this approach because it couldn’t be done this way in any medium but theater. 

Childs Daly’s adaptation was first produced in 1993 at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) Theaterfest in Santa Monica, Calif. It was recently produced in Chicago at the Strawdog Theatre, but this will be the first professional production of the play in Milwaukee. Rhode noted how much of a luxury it was to have Daly on hand. “I’ve known her for a long time and you rarely have this much access to your playwright, so even just being able to go get coffee with her or being able to call her has been extremely helpful.” 

What Rhode stressed about this play is its uniqueness and theatricality. “A cinematic adaptation would never be this way; you would never experience the story this way in another medium. It’s a uniquely theatrical telling of the story that is very immediate and incredibly fun to watch unfold,” she said. 

Aside from its theatricality, Rhode highlighted themes of the adaptation that are still relevant today: specifically, the word “great” and how her interpretation of that word has changed over the past six months. “I have started to look at everything through a different lens over the past few months, so I had to ask myself what does it mean to be great? I think things like compassion, empathy, forgiveness and generosity make us great, and those are all critical themes in the play,” she explained, adding, “There’s a lot in this play that I wish wasn’t relevant anymore, but it is. So I am trying to double down on the themes that I think make us great.”

Great Expectations runs April 13-30 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit chamber-theatre.com.  

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