On Boston Stages: Dark Doings In The Victorian Era

Publication date: 
December 18, 2016
Author: 
Rich Fahey

CAMBRIDGE – On the darkest days of the year, the American Repertory Theater is offering a work exploring characters involved in the darkest of deeds, awash in the darkest of humor.

“Fingersmith,” award-winning writer Alexa Junge’s adaptation of the novel by Sarah Waters, directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bill Rauch (“All The Way”), is very dark indeed, with a sterling roster of designers all contributing in setting just the right atmosphere to let this Victorian thriller flourish.

Saugus native Tracee Chimo – a passel of awards already on her resume — is Sue Trinder, aka “Fingersmith,” a talented pickpocket raised amidst assorted London lowlifes by Mrs. Sucksby (Kristine Nielsen), a “baby farmer” – someone accepting custody of an infant or child in exchange for payment, usually with the children dying shortly afterwards from a combination of illness, malnutrition, neglect or abuse.

Somehow, Sue survives – working roughly in the area where her mother was hanged – and makes a reputation for herself. She seems an ideal candidate for a scheme hatched by a dashing rogue named Richard “Gentleman” Rivers, (played by Josiah Bania). He proposes that Sue masquerade as a lady’s maid in his plot to marry an heiress named Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind), whom he intends to have carted off to the madhouse, sharing her fortune with Sue.

Maud is an orphan living with her rich uncle Christopher Lilly (T. Ryder Smith), a complicated, learned mess of a man who gets his kicks – and attracts a loyal following – by getting his niece Maude to read aloud from some very special books.

The rough-edged Sue barely passes muster with Maud and housekeeper Mrs. Stiles (Kate Levy) as a maid, but gains favor with Maud, who portrays herself as naive as a relationshiop between the two women becomes a light in the darkness; gay female relationships in the Victorian era is a topic Waters explores in three books set in the time period.

When the time comes to send Maud off to the madhouse, confusion turns to chaos and betrayal.

Delving into the plot of the play any further will deprive you of the twists and turns , competing narratives, and swithcbacks. “Fingersmith” will go back in time, then further back in time, as various layers of the plot are peeled back like an onion.

At times the characters will address the audience directly, especially while making the story their own.

Chimo and Lind set the pace for the sterling cast; Nielsen is right there with them with her portrayal of a woman both exploiting and protecting her chaarges while finding ways to survive in a cruel world.

The lower-class heavy Cockney accents are well-done, but do take some time getting used to.

The two-tiered scenic design by Christopher Acebo includes a turntable stage and such features as a gallows, allowing for well-coordinated hangings – using Acebo’s set and projections by Shawn Sagady – that are worthy of the famed macabre Théâtre du Grand Guignol of Paris.

The Deborah Dryden costumes – befitting the Victorian era – are sumptuous and complicated, and it’s a hoot watching Sue as the maid to Maud curse as she struggles to remove the umpty-seven layers in one of several mid-scene costume changes.

The brooding original music and sound design by Andre Pluess cast a sense of foreboding over the entire piece, as does the shadowy, grimy, never-ever-bright lighting of Jen Schriever, who did wonderful work in ART’s “In The Body of the World.”

In its searing look at class distinctions and the relationship between those high and low on the British economic ladder, “Fingersmith” actually has something in common with such musicals as “My Fair Lady” and “Oliver.” The BBC also adapted the Waters novel, and it was also adapted and set in Korea in the recent movie “The Handmaiden.”

“Fingersmith” is satisfying on many levels: it’s a multi-layered story and a plot with substance that works; the level of acting is strong up and down the line; Rauch’s taut, tight direction is full speed ahead in a piece that offers plenty of pitfalls; and again, the fabulous production values immerse you in a faraway time and place.

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