Slice of Life

Syracuse Stage opens 44th season with ‘Great Expectations’

Courtesy of Michael Davis

Robbie Simpson played the main character in the show, Pip. When Pip's dreams come true, he realizes maybe they weren't in the best thing for him or those around him.

It seemed normal enough — Jill Anderson and Bob Hupp stood before the audience in the Archbold Theater at Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex to give opening remarks, thank sponsors, remind people to turn off their phones and point out emergency exits.

But before anyone knew it, Anderson whipped out her phone to take a selfie with Hupp and the entire audience behind her.

“It’s our first opening night, so we want to take a selfie with you all,” Anderson said, as audience members cheered, raised their hands and waved in the background.

Syracuse Stage kicked off its 44th season with “Great Expectations” on Friday night at the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex. It also marked the first opening night for Anderson and Hupp, who are three months into their new positions as managing director and artistic director of Syracuse Stage, respectively.

Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, “Great Expectations” tells the story of Pip, an orphaned country boy who dreams of being wealthy and becoming a gentleman. When an anonymous benefactor helps his dreams become a reality, he ultimately realizes that his “great expectations” might not have been the best thing for him or those around him.

Theatergoers walked into the theater to see an adaptable 18th-century set, easily transformable to portray a living room, a kitchen, or even an ocean.  Tables, chairs and dressers entered and left the stage as frequently as the actors themselves. Lights set the mood and established the right tones, with the added effect of a fog machine to depict scenes on ominous marshes or in open water.

Condensing such a large novel with multiple storylines and a myriad of characters into a short play resulted in Pip being the only credited role out of six actors. Though the other five roles were credited as narrators one through five, each person played a different set of characters throughout the play.

Marina Shay, who played the role of Biddy, Pip’s friend, and Estella, the young lady with whom Pip falls in love, said the quick changes and character switches were becoming second nature, as well as a great exercise in the art of acting.

Linda Mugleston’s roles included Mrs. Joe, Pip’s sister who raised him, and the mysterious Miss Havisham, who Pip believed to be his benefactor. Mugleston likened the experience of going through so many costume changes and character changes to walking around in circles and almost tipping over.

“But it’s getting there, and you just have to know what you’re wearing and what you’re doing and who you are,” she said.

With so many characters and quick costume changes, often only seconds apart, audience members have to rely on their suspension of belief and on the actors’ portrayals to believe and identify what characters are currently onstage.

“You have to use your imagination as an audience member, like you have to do when you read a book,” said Anthony Cochrane, whose roles included Abel Magwich, an escaped convict who becomes Pip’s benefactor, as well as the lawyer Jaggers, who handles Pip’s finances once he becomes a gentleman. “It’s kind of similar in that way and some of it’s presented, hopefully, in an inventive manner.”

Seth Bridges, whose roles included Herbert Pocket, Pip’s loyal friend, added that it’s all about identifying with the audience very quickly who you are what your character is about. The different energy that they aim to bring out in each character has to show — otherwise, the storytelling won’t be effective.

Bridges added that a show like “Great Expectations” is hard to do without a strong ensemble. Though Pip is essentially the central character, a lot also relies on the chemistry of the cast.

“I know that no matter what happens, I can look at anyone onstage and someone will save my ass if I do something wrong,” Bridges said. “Without a strong sense of ensemble and teamwork, we’d be in the tall grass.”

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