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 film “The 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.