Bill Rauch and company keep the superficial contrivances hurtling along at a fast enough pace so we aren’t given much time to think.
Fingersmith by Alexa Junge. Based on the novel by Sarah Waters. Directed by Bill Rauch. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through January 8, 2017
By Bill Marx
I have not read Sarah Waters’ bestselling 500-page novel, which Fingersmith is based on, so I am not sure if the book clarifies what the stage adaptation is up to – is this a homage, a pastiche, or a lampoon of 19th century English thrillers? Maybe a little bit of all the above? About mid-way through the show I stopped trying to figure out the answer because it didn’t seem to matter all that much. The amiable proceedings — an air-brushed tale of skullduggery and illicit romance between an ambitious criminal rabble and the dissolute wealthy — go down far too easily to be an ingenious rip-roaring chiller, as promised. This is Victoriana shaped to entertain the American suburb-iana.
I don’t want to supply any spoilers, so I will keep the plot summary skimpy. A murderous scheme is afoot, with the young scalawag Sue Trinder selected to serve as maid to the innocent and lonely Maude Lily to ensure that the lovelorn heiress will marry villianous confederate Richard Rivers, who will procure the loot after having wifey clamped in the madhouse. Sue will get a portion of the ill-gotten gains. But nothing is what it seems to be, so prepare for reversals (romantic and otherwise) and reversals of reversals. None of it makes all that much sense (though the Balzac would no doubt admire the overweening nerve of the story’s wicked mastermind). Mindful of that, director Bill Rauch and company keep the superficial contrivances hurtling along at a fast enough pace so we aren’t given much time to think.
In terms of its politics, Fingersmith‘s vision of 19th century British society wallows in the moralistic PBS mode, oh-so comfortable (and comforting). The lower class robber types are greedy, humorous, and fertile (none of Oliver Twist‘s anti-Semitism or physical brutality here; no anti-bourgeois rabble rousing allowed); the haughty aristocrats have their wealth and servants, but they don’t really enjoy them all that much (punishment for being of the 1%?); they are desiccated, creepy, depressed, sadistic, and obsessed with pornography.
Adapter Junge follows the twists and turns of the novel, which means that each short scene features a character or two explaining where we are in the plot, guiding us through flashbacks, filling us in on the very, very busy doings in the past, and suppling a one-liner or two (as in any good screenplay) to make sure our attention doesn’t wander. There isn’t much opportunity for real dramatic conflict until the final scenes — one colorful thing just happens after another, with the actors on occasion spewing out their dialogue at breakneck speed. Are they struggling to get all the words in? Hoping we won’t question the plausibility of what’s going on? The performances are pleasant enough, particularly from the leads, a peppy Tracee Chimo as Sue and Christina Bennett Lind’s suitably mysterious Maude (though the actress becomes far less interesting once her character’s secrets are shed). Rauch finds moments in which the performers can convey some emotional nuance, but overall the acting style wavers between psychological earnestness and a cartoonishness redolent of the musical Drood, which is based on Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Rauch is a serious and talented director; his Cornerstone Theatre Company mounted a number of powerful, politically tinged productions (I reviewed a number of them) when the troupe was in Boston. He must do provocative work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – at the very least he is staging the Bard. But that is not the kind of challenging work brought in by the A.R.T.’s entrepreneur extraordinaire Diane Paulus. At this point, the theater’s branding — that it is committed to “expanding the boundaries of theater” — is about as credible as soon-to-be President Trump’s claims that he is dedicated to making life better for the working man. Of course, our dramatic critics, seduced by the siren song of deft marketing and Broadway-or-Bust prestige, parrot the P.R. without demure. Hey, if a company proclaims it is producing ‘great theater’ then it must be — let the blurbing begin.
Watching Fingersmith, I got the nagging feeling I was back in the ’80s at a Huntington Theatre Company production – a superb set (kudos to designer Christopher Acebo) serving as the eye-filling platform for an example of conventional, semi-commercial entertainment. It isn’t often a show perfectly matches Dwight Macdonald’s definition of middlebrow culture, but Fingersmith fits it like a glove. Nuggets of postmodern artiness (references to life’s ‘plots,’ the ‘machinery’ of narrative, etc) are blended into a palatable evening of feel-good hoo-ha. The irony is that the 19th century source material is far stranger and darker than this ‘contemporary’ wanna-be thriller; for Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, etc, the dank nooks and crannies of human nature are deeply resistant to Fingersmith’s middle-class homage to the enduring Power of Love, the venality of the class system be damned. The most disappointing aspect of this literary dilution is that even pornography is transformed into a redemptive force. The Marquis de Sade’s sordid ‘engines of desire,’ domesticated.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.