The Picnic Papers

Cal Shakes' outdoor, sprawling Nicholas Nickleby moves fast enough to hold your attention

It's not that all the acting is bad. The ensemble scenes are lively and magnetic, and individuals -- most notably Dan Hiatt as Ralph Nickleby's oddball clerk, Newman Noggs, and James Carpenter, in an almost sympathetic portrayal of Noggs' tightfisted employer -- manage to keep it down. But the general high pitch of the performances means that every sentence is delivered as if it were the punch line to an extremely funny and original joke. This overacting backfires in a number of ways, not least of which is rendering Edgar's narrative technique almost unbearable: It has the unfortunate effect of undermining some of Dickens' most juicy scenes and characters -- the few that are supposed to be over the top.

Danny Scheie, for instance, is fabulously affected as the prissy milliner Mr. Mantalini, but his character stands out far less than he might in the melee of affectation around him. Similarly, in the face of so much bravura, it's hard to tell if the extended play-within-a-play sequence in which the Crummles acting troupe incompetently stages a bastardized version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is supposed to be that way. As cast member and veteran Bay Area actor Joan Mankin puts it in her informative blog entry on the rehearsal process (www.joanmankin.blogspot.com): "What does it take to overdo or mispronounce or randomly gesticulate in a way that clues the audience in on the fact that you know you are doing it badly; actually not that you know it, but that you are doing it on purpose?" Alas, no one at Cal Shakes seems to have a good answer to Mankin's question.

Inventive staging and creative direction liven 
up the ensemble scenes in Nicholas 
Nickleby.
Inventive staging and creative direction liven up the ensemble scenes in Nicholas Nickleby.

Details

Part One through Aug. 7, Part Two through Sept. 11

Tickets are $10-55

(510) 548-9666

www.c alshakes.org

Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Boulevard (just off Highway 24), Orinda

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If Duse were alive today, would she think the outdoor theater revolution had succeeded? On a literal level, she might not be so impressed with the bulk of the open-air fare available today. Figuratively speaking, Duse's desire to bring the theater "back to nature" was part of a broader movement toward substituting the 19th-century passion for spectacle with a more intensely psychological, bare-boards approach. So she'd probably get a kick out of Nicholas Nickleby, with its unabashed joyousness and imaginative staging. The question is: How would the diva react to all the eating and digesting going on in those midsummer parks at night?

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