Monday, January 9, 2017

Plot First: Fingersmith

Tracee Chimo and Christina Bennett Lind in Fingersmith. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Alexa Junge’s stage adaptation of Fingersmith, which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is currently in residence at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, adheres faithfully to Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel – and considering how twisty the tale is, that’s not a small achievement. The story is about a young woman named Sue Trinder (Tracee Chimo) raised by a baby farmer named Mrs. Sucksby (Kristine Nielsen) in a den of thieves in London after her mother is hanged, who collaborates in a scheme to rob an heiress, Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind), of her inheritance. Maud, also an orphan, lives with her uncle (T. Ryder Smith), a purveyor of rare books, in the country. As long as she remains under his wing she has no access to her fortune, but it transfers to her as soon as she marries. So one of Mrs. Sucksby’s acquaintances, a con artist known as Gentleman (Josiah Bania), worms his way into the book collector’s circle of upper-crust clients and woos Maud on the sly. As his plot – to marry Maud, then have her certified insane and thrown in an asylum so he can collect her money – develops, Gentleman persuades her to hire Sue as her personal maid, to advance his case and guarantee him a mole in the household. The two women become intimates: Maud confides in Sue, keeps her in her bed to calm her night terrors, and, a virgin who admits to ignorance about what is expected of her on her wedding night, begs her for sexual instruction. And Sue, the tough, streetwise London “fingersmith” (or thief), surprises herself by falling in love with her mistress and feeling guilt over the doom that she is helping Gentleman lead Maud to. That’s the first section of the novel’s three sections; in the second the narrator shifts from Sue to Maud and the first of the narrative surprises kicks in.

Waters intends the book as an homage to Dickens: it begins as Oliver Twist and ends, in a way, as Great Expectations. The Dickensian influence extends to the length, too, though at nearly 600 pages it’s at least a hundred too long; you begin to grow impatient in the second section. (There’s way too much of the madhouse; Junge has wisely cut almost all of it.) Waters isn’t a great stylist, but she’s very readable. Since Fingersmith was produced at OSF in 2015 the Korean director Park Chan-Wook has released a movie version, The Handmaiden, which came out at the end of last year. He and his co-screenwriter Jeong Seo-Kyeong populate the film with Korean and Japanese characters and alter the last part of the story line, but you can certainly recognize the source material. The movie is beautiful to look at, as my colleague Justin Cummings pointed out in his review, and it’s enjoyably sexy and nutty. I couldn’t take it all that seriously – as a portrait of perversity, it’s not exactly Buñuel’s Belle de Jour or Ichikawa’s The Key – but I certainly had a good time watching it.

Junge’s dramatization is very competent, though I could have lived without the meta-theatrical flourishes that register as winks to the audience and add nothing to the play. But the downside to including all that plot is that the second act calls up almost nothing else. The director, Bill Rauch – who is also OSF’s artistic director and previously teamed up with ART on All the Way, which made it to Broadway – stages it expertly and moves it along at breakneck speed. The running time is close to three hours but it feels shorter. Unfortunately, it also feels insubstantial, because the characters are shortchanged in favor of the all-important plot. The best thing about the show is Christopher Acebo’s Sweeney Todd-ish set design, which features a bridge that bifurcates the space horizontally and provides nooks that Rauch uses to vary the stage picture and shift focus; at its best the production is like an advent calendar with scenes popping up all over the stage. Acebo’s work is enhanced by Jen Schriever’s lighting and Shawn Sagady’s trompe l’oeil projections.

I’m sure I would have liked Fingersmith more if it were better acted. Chimo has the right feisty quality for the role of Sue, but her performance doesn’t develop any new ideas after the first half of act one. Lind is obviously talented but her aristocratic hauteur is broadly rendered and unconvincing, and her high vocal placement makes her sound shrill. Her performance does improve quite a lot in the second act. Gentleman is written to reveal sinister glimmerings beneath his seductive charm; it’s a pity that Bania plays him as if he were a frisky nineteen-year-old. The ensemble is clumsy and sometimes amateurish. Only Kristine Nielsen (a New York theatre actor I’ve often admired), as the complicated, hard-to-fathom Mrs. Sucksby – a character Dickens might certainly have devised – suggests any real depth. In my visits to Ashland, my biggest complaint about OSF shows has been the mediocrity of the acting, and though Fingersmith had a different cast on the west coast, these ART actors, too, are overall puzzlingly unimpressive.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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