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BroadwayWorld: 'Fingersmith,' A Twice-Told Tale

Publication date: 
December 15, 2016
Author: 
Nancy Grossman

The American Repertory Theater reunites with Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch, director of the 2014 Tony Award-winning play All The Way, to present Fingersmith, Alexa Junge's adaptation of Sarah Waters' 2002 novel of the same name. Former Harvard University undergrad Rauch debuted both plays in Oregon before bringing them cross-country to Cambridge for further development. If past is prologue, one could predict a rosy future for the dark Victorian thriller at ART's Loeb Drama Center. Junge's Herculean effort capsulizes the 582-page opus into a taut two-hour drama enhanced by exceptional performances and outstanding production design.

The story is set in Victorian London where we meet orphan Sue Trinder (Tracee Chimo), an accomplished pickpocket ("fingersmith"), Mrs. Sucksby (Kristine Nielsen), a baby farmer who has raised Sue like her own daughter, and the pack of odd denizens who live in and around their residence. A con man known as Richard "Gentleman" Rivers (Josiah Bania) proposes a scheme to separate an orphan, Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind), from her rich uncle (T. Ryder Smith) and fortune by marrying her and getting her committed to an asylum. He recruits Sue to serve as Maud's maid and grease the skids for him, promising her a cut of the money. Once Sue goes to live in the Lilly mansion, love blooms amid mysteries, deception, and betrayal. Not everything goes as planned, nor is everyone who they seem to be. As soon as a twist is revealed, along comes an unexpected turn to keep the audience guessing, and so on, throughout the two acts.

Despite the need to carve a substantial amount of material from the book to craft the play, Junge maintains the dramatic heart of Waters' story, the density of the plot, and the fascinating layers of her characters. Words are insufficient to praise Chimo and Lind who match up beautifully as the two strong women from different stratum, drawing attention to the difficult circumstances faced by their gender, regardless of class. They are at the mercy of the men in their lives, which may or may not contribute to a lesbian love affair, but certainly leads to their developing resourcefulness to overcome repression. As much as the themes of class, gender, and sexuality reflect the norms of the Victorian era, they are represented here with a more modern feminist bent, virtually transforming Sue and Maud into heroines taking back their power from those who would strip them of it.

Although ascribed to a life of hardship, Mrs. Sucksby is the captain of her own fate, hatching a plan for her redemption after waiting twenty-one years for the pieces to fall into place. Nielsen is brilliant as the very model of a nurturing sociopath, drawing us to her even as we feel repulsed. Bania epitomizes the traits of the charming scoundrel, while Smith's Uncle Christopher Manifests a Dickensian villain, and both characterizations will make you want to bathe. The rest of the members of the ensemble play two or three roles, vividly differentiating between them. Stock characters, such as a Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper (Kate Levy), an asylum doctor (Kingsley Leggs), a pair of thieves (Luke Marinkovich, Jo Mei), a pawn dealer (Patrick Kerr), a maid (Lenne Klingaman), and a knife boy (Zachary Infante), are anything but ordinary in these fully-realized portrayals.

The design team has created an evocative atmosphere with a tiered set with moving parts (Christopher Acebo), numerous lighting moods (Jen Schriever), ominous musical motifs and sound effects (Andre Pluess), and costume designs that reflect the class differences of the era (Deborah Dryden). Projections (Shawn Sagady) provide scenes that must be done artificially, such as hangings. On this playground, Rauch uses the space well to suggest different locations and keep the audience's attention on the relevant corner of the stage as scenes shift. There is never a dull moment, no time to check your watch, as the pace moves at a rapid clip. If there is a slight criticism, it is the rapidity of speech in some scenes that makes it challenging to catch it all, especially considering the cockney accents, albeit well-done by all of the actors.

Fingersmith is a richly emotional story with characters who make you care about them, despite their many flaws. It is impossible to include more in a review without tripping into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the trio of women and their relationships at the center of the play will make you feel a lot. In fact, you might feel like you've had your pocket picked while you were looking the other way. They're very good at what they do.

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