You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Regional Theater Review: ‘Fingersmith,’ Based on the Novel That Inspired ‘The Handmaiden’

Tracee Chimo, Christina Bennett Lind, Josiah Bania, Kristine Nielsen, T. Ryder Smith, Patrick Kerr.

This holiday season, it’s gratifying to encounter at least one Victorian-era entertainment that doesn’t end with wassail, Tiny Tim and his crutch. “Fingersmith” — based on the novel that inspired buzzy South Korean filmThe Handmaiden,”  and now gracing the Loeb Drama Center at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater — certainly has its Dickensian elements, including more plot than you could stuff a Christmas goose with. But its intent is less to ask God to bless us every one than to shake a fist at social and sexual inequities and our species’ compulsive tendency to treat each other as badly as possible. It’s a heady, involving brew, though as performed under Bill Rauch’s direction it could be spiked with a lot more intoxicating liquor for a bigger kick.

Sarah Waters’ Man Booker Prize-nominated 2002 page-turner has already received the BBC Masterpiece Theater treatment, and just this year was transplanted to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule for Park Chan-wook’s exquisite “Handmaiden.” Alexa Junge’s current adaptation, first presented at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Rauch’s home base, takes the modified story-theater route familiar from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nicholas Nickleby”: direct-address narrators, unabashedly theatrical devices and actors in multiple roles at the switch of a bonnet.

But it all comes back to Dickens, who would readily — and knowing him, possibly litigiously –notice direct links to “Oliver Twist” in the East End digs of blowsy Mrs. Sucksby (Kristine Nielsen), a Fagin-like entrepreneur of con artists and pickpockets (known familiarly as fingersmiths). The mysterious Gentleman (Josiah Bania) is our Bill Sikes stand-in — though more effete, less brutal — who’s concocted a scheme to gull and betray the heiress niece of a wealthy country eccentric. Maud (Christina Bennett Lind) is already halfway to catatonia anyway, so if she can be persuaded to marry the noble gent he can swive her once, throw her in the nuthouse and make off with her fortune quick as Bob’s yer uncle.

The job needs someone on the inside, a lady’s maid who can keep an eye on Maud, to which purpose is enlisted Sue Trinder (Tracee Chimo), Sucksby’s adoptive daughter and artful dodger. A rough, bitter slip of a thing, Sue takes uncomfortably to her domestic pose until crazy housebound Maud demands pre-nup instruction on man-pleasing. Sue’s ministrations prove she’s not called a champion fingersmith for nothing, their gradual intimacy becoming — well, with a tip of the hat to Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s 2015 movie, think of it as a Christmas “Carol.”

Things go like clockwork right up to the asylum gate, at which point the first in a series of dizzying reversals and reveals occurs, sending us into intermission with all the great expectations of a “Bleak House” subscriber awaiting the next published chapter. The production does an excellent job of keeping the mind engaged and the eye delighted, particularly with Christopher Acebo’s set design, which opposes mansion and slum facades to bring out their similar functions in harboring evildoing. Jen Schriever’s lighting is deliciously moody, and Shawn Sagady’s projections add striking special effects at key junctures.

Yet this “Fingersmith” skims the surface when it might have pierced to the marrow. Rauch has settled on a broad, jokey acting style not unlike that which might’ve been seen in Dickens’ time, or in the umpteenth revival of “Oliver!” today. Direct address is one thing, but all the wink-wink collusion with the groundlings keeps pulling us out of the story. Efforts to leaven things in act two, when the story goes dark indeed, just seem like an awkward tonal shift, with hints of self-consciousness remaining very much in evidence.

Chimo is a fierce performer given too often to attitudinizing here, and if you like your Bill Sikes mugging, then Bania’s Gentleman will be to your taste. But Nielsen conveyed more menace as a dotty Maggie Smith impersonator in Broadway’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” than as jolly Sucksby. Lind’s Maud, in particular, is played for coarse-grained, condescending laughs, at least in act one. In this production, no matter how fraught or bloody the events, no one ever seems in much more peril than the heroine in an old-time melodrama, tied to a fake railroad track or lapped by crepe-paper flames.

While this take on “Fingersmith” is an unquestioned crowdpleaser, it would be bracing to see the personal and social stakes of the tale taken more seriously, and its battles to the death played in dead earnest.

Popular on Variety

Regional Theater Review: 'Fingersmith,' Based on the Novel That Inspired 'The Handmaiden'

American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge MA, 550 seats, $95 top. Opened Dec. 14, 2016; reviewed Dec. 16; runs through Jan. 8, 2017. Running time: TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: An American Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Alexa Junge, based on the novel by Sarah Waters.

Creative: Directed by Bill Rauch. Sets, Christopher Acebo; costumes, Deborah Dryden; lighting, Jen Schriever; composer/sound, Andre Pluess; projections, Shawn Sagady; wigs and makeup, Rachel Padula Shufelt; production stage manager, Mandy Younger.

Cast: Tracee Chimo, Christina Bennett Lind, Josiah Bania, Kristine Nielsen, T. Ryder Smith, Patrick Kerr.

More Legit

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

  • Jayne Houdyshell arrives at the 71st

    'The Music Man' Revival Adds Four Tony Winners to Broadway Cast

    Tony Award-winners Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen and Shuler Hensley will join stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” In “The Music Man,” Jackman will play con-man Harold Hill, who arrives in a small, fictional Iowa town called River City and urges the townsfolk to start [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content