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Great Expectations at Strawdog Theatre Company: Theater review

A stirring bit of storytelling brings Charles Dickens's story to life in a fashion that lives up to its title.

Photograph: Chris Ocken

Amanda Drinkall and Mike Tepeli in Great Expectations at Strawdog Theatre Company

Photograph: Chris Ocken

Kyle A. Gibson and Mike Tepeli in Great Expectations at Strawdog Theatre Company

Photograph: Chris Ocken

Great Expectations at Strawdog Theatre Company

Photograph: Chris Ocken

Great Expectations at Strawdog Theatre Company

There's another Charles Dickens tale that comes around in many variants around this time of year, but Strawdog offers up an excellent reason to forgo caroling this season. The venerable storefront ensemble's new adaptation of Dickens's Great Expectations, performed by six actors, is an unexpected pleasure.

Gale Childs Daly's adaptation gives the impression of working directly from Dickens's text. It begins with Pip (the terrific Mike Tepeli) entering his own tale through the written word. As he reads aloud from a handsome library edition of Expectations, pulled from one of the three tall wooden bookcases that twirl into various configurations to suggest the different locales in Joanna Iwanicka's clever scenic design, Pip gets pulled into the story at knifepoint by the escaped convict Magwitch (Kyle A. Gibson, who like all the actors aside from Tepeli transforms into multiple characters throughout).

The confident ensemble shares narration duties throughout, shifting between first and third person as needed in a manner that suggests every word is Dickens's own. Jason W. Gerace's assured staging literally returns Pip to the text time and time again, as at varying moments of decision, another character—Gibson's menacing Magwitch, Amanda Drinkall's beautiful, haughty Estella, John Ferrick's kind blacksmith Joe, John Taflan's affable Herbert Pocket or Megan Kohl's tragic Miss Havisham, among others—will shove the book in Pip's face, pointing at where to start reading. As Pip progresses, the action moves faster and his script falls away—all until a crucial moment of truth when he must finally confront Estella, whom he's spent too many years futilely trying to please.

Daly's lithe adaptation smartly trims Dickens's expansive plot and cast without feeling like it sacrifices too much. It's a great pleasure watching strong young Chicago talents like Drinkall and Kohl embody numerous characters, transmuting in front of you, while Tepeli handles the young hero's journey and eventual maturation with rich depth and magnetic charm. Strawdog's compelling production greatly exceeds expectations.