Wednesday, March 29, 2017

To Begin With Goes Back to the Beginning

Everyone has their celebrity obsessions. 

Photo by Paula Keller.

For some, it's television personalities. For others, it's movies or video games or activists. For me, it's authors.

I've been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. A huge part of my childhood involved breathlessly waiting for Wishbone (R.I.P.) to come on after school; I cannot credit that show enough for the millions of ways it opened my mind to new worlds and encouraged a deep, lifelong love for books. One of my favorite sets of episodes were those based on books by Charles Dickens, whose work I now read on my own with fervent admiration. I went on to conduct an independent research project on women in Victorian literature in college, a project partly inspired by my love for Dickens' work. A keystone architect of the modern novel, one of the first writers to put real people's voices, problems and social causes into his writing, and an all around master of human caricature, Charles Dickens is a hero I will never stop re-reading.

Photo courtesy of the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

So it's no surprise that I RAN to the Historic Wesley Center to see none other than Gerald Charles Dickens portray his great-great-grandfather in a To Begin With, a new play by Jeffrey Hatcher. The one-man show follows Charles as he dictates his tussles with Algernon Charles Swinburne (yes, the famous poet - but here in child form) over the issue of religion and particularly Christ. Part C.S. Lewis, part serial novel, the show is narrated fully by Dickens and is replete with charming caricatures of Swinburne, Swinburne's family, and Dickens' children. The crux of the plot is Dickens' determination to create a version of the gospel written solely for and appealing to children, to help them age with a love of the gospel and develop a relationship with Christ. The show includes an entire abridged re-telling of the gospels through Dickens' voice, a recitation of several of his famous opening lines and window into his creative process, and a lively debate between a 12-year-old atheist and a highly spiritual adult.

Photo by Paula Keller.

Dickens' is wonderful in his role, with a rich delivery and animated expressions that reminded me very much of Geoffrey Rush. Hatcher did a great job with this script, keeping it modern enough for current audiences to relate to while retaining the flavor of Charles Dickens' writing style and witticisms. It's clear that Gerald's relationship to the work is profoundly personal, and he brings a robust humanity to his part. Gerald also has quite distinct iterations for each separate character that clearly delineate between voices in conversations, and the lively delivery keeps the audience engaged.

Photo by Paula Keller.

The costume design is accessible and appropriate, as is the set design, by Nayna Ramey. My one complaint is the large, boring, black curtains backstopping the set piece and covering up the magnificent organ in the Wesley Center. I'm sure the intention is to provide a blank slate to focus attention onto the action on-stage, but the effect is quite abrupt (as the organ is highly visible around the curtains anyway). It would feel a little more appropriate to the era to just do away with said curtains and let the piece rest in the unabridged Wesley Center - maybe they can tweak this later on? Sound design, by John Markiewicz, is spot-on and provides effects that really round out the sense of place in To Begin With. Lighting design, by Michael Klaers, is pretty straightforward and does the trick.

Photo by Paula Keller.

I must say that although well-timed with Easter season coming up, the religious overtones of the show can feel a bit heavy handed (at least for those who have more than a rudimentary grasp of the bible). The discussions between Dickens and Swinburne are lively, interesting, and raise some profound questions about the nature of faith and why we believe what we do; but do we really need a full re-telling of Christ's story? Even so, Gerald Dickens brings the script to vibrant life, and it's a joy to feel in the presence (even if a few generations off) of the great Charles Dickens. Anyone who enjoys Charles Dickens' books, from A Christmas Carol to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, can find something to love in To Begin With. To Begin With runs through April 15 at the Historic Wesley Center; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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