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Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Great Expectations at University at Albany

I've long believed that the community, in general, tends to overlook the cultural advantages of having a college in our midst. The current production of "Great Expectations" at the University of Albany is but one example.

It continues at the Performing Arts Center at the Washington Avenue campus until Saturday. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are only $12 and $8 for seniors. A better deal you will not find. Take advantage.

"Great Expectations" is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel by Chad Larabee, who also directs the work. He sets the time between 1953-1968 and moves the location to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and in Washington, DC. He eliminates, combines and renames characters but essentially focuses on the story of Pip - here named Hub - and his journey to find his identity and accept himself for who he is rather than what he thinks he should be.

This concentration on Hub/Pip's search for self makes a college campus an ideal location for the world premiere of the work. Not only does it have a special resonance to most of its audience, it has a talent pool appropriate to the age of the characters. Wisely, to fill the roles of two older characters the production goes off campus to enlist the talents of Carol Charniga as the eccentric spinster Victoria Piedmont and Patrick White as the criminal Thomas Summerset.

The students are not only age appropriate they are talent appropriate. The leads, Justin Mancuso as Hub, Kristyn Youngblood as Stella and Cecelia Gray as Sissy/Kim, offer honest performances that display talent and training. The rest of the cast is also very good as they create an array of characters that are fully realized.

The sets appear impressive, but they do not always serve the play. There is a two-tiered set that is rolled back and forth - but since more than 90% of the action is played on one level - why have two? It's a case of because you can doesn't mean you should. The Washington apartment set is also overdone. But being fair, tech students in a theater program need to learn their craft as well, which makes overdone forgivable on a college campus. And truth is - no harm, no foul.

Larabee's adaptation is smart and functional. Because so much has to be condensed even to bring the performance time to the current 2 1/2 hours, the play appears to be as much a work "suggested by" as it is an adaptation. I mostly missed the shadings of character and motive in the supporting cast - especially with the criminal Sommerset who's reasons for helping Hub and his actions at play's end are rushed and lack the important depth of meaning they deserve. Too, Hub's transformations from good to vain and back again seem abrupt and would be helped by some transitional scenes. However, I doubt that anyone would sit through a four hour production.

The thing I most appreciate about "Great Expectations" is that the minor flaws add to the experience. How satisfying to see talented young actors working to bring alive and make contemporary great literature. Sorry to say, you don't get much of that at local community theaters.

Sadder to say, we won't be getting any more of this at the University at Albany as the theater program is being eliminated. If you thought the idea of dropping theater was crazy - go see "Great Expectations" and realize it is a truly insane and destructive plan.



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