Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Nick of Time

By Steven Robert Allen

MAY 4, 1998:  It's bloated, melodramatic, vaudevillian and shallow. This painstakingly complete adaptation clocks in at just under six hours and comes from a novel that certainly can't be considered one of Dickens' best. Despite these factors, though, or possibly because of them, Nicholas Nickleby, now running at UNM's Rodey Theatre, presents a surprisingly enjoyable theatrical experience.

Dickens was in his mid-20s, secure in his position as the most popular novelist in England, when he first published Nicholas Nickleby, and in many ways the story is the work of an immature writer. Without exception, the characters are either good, evil or ludicrous. All lack subtlety or moral ambiguity. Nicholas Nickleby combines the slapstick of Dickens' first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), with the social criticism of his second, Oliver Twist (1838), into a distinctive narrative style that did not evolve fully until much later in his career.

At the time, Dickens had become enraged by reports describing institutions called Yorkshire schools, which served as holding pens for the unwanted and illegitimate children of the middle and upper classes. He personally investigated these schools and found the living and teaching conditions to be appalling. In response, he created Dotheby's Hall, a fictional Yorkshire school, with a repugnant schoolmaster named Wackford Squeers. Sad circumstances force Nicholas Nickleby--an Oliver Twist with pubic hair--to accept employment at Dotheby's Hall. The result is a soap opera peppered with heaps of cheap laughs, gags and thrills.

David Edgar's adaptation of the novel premiered in London in 1980. Now that same adaptation is here in Albuquerque. A gargantuan cast and crew, including 40 actors performing almost 100 roles, has been assembled for the show. The huge, sprawling production even requires two directors.

The talented Joseph Pesce flourishes in the difficult lead role. Nicholas Nickleby, like many heroes in early Dickens novels, is too thoroughly good to be believable. Pesce wisely plays the role with more humor and camp than melodrama, and his interpretation works very well. Music supplied by Luis Herrera may sound like it issues from some cheesy Yamaha DX7, but the sets, costumes and staging make up for this weakness with immaculately contrived excellence.

Co-director David Richard Jones compares this production to a long bus trip, and there is something Greyhound about it. All those weirdoes and oddballs milling around for hours on end entertain and irritate and terrify in equal measure. Of course, no play as melodramatic as Nicholas Nickleby can be considered serious theater. Yet the story and production redeem themselves, because the world Dickens imagines reflects reality in some important ways. The Yorkshire schools did exist, and institutions reminiscent of them continue to exist. This serves as a necessary reminder. While Dickens' head may have been rammed up some miscellaneous hole when he created Nicholas Nickleby, his heart, at least, was in exactly the right place.


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