ART's "Fingersmith": To the Victorians Go the Spoilers

Tracee Chimo & Company in "Fingersmith"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Fingersmith, based on the ingenious novel by Sarah Waters, has seen the light of day not just in print but on television (a three-hour BBC miniseries with Imelda Staunton) and film (the recent Japanese/Korean movie entitled “The Handmaiden”). Now it arrives at ART in Cambridge as a live theatrical thriller, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (premiering there in 2015), here directed by that same company's Artistic Director Bill Rauch (of All the Way fame). It's a mystery within a mystery within a mystery, rather like one of those nestled Russian matryoshka dolls. And it is quite impossible to describe much of these Victorian hijinks without letting drop some unpardonable spoilers. Having read the book and seen the BBC teleplay (though not the film), one was all too eager to see this staged version as written by Alexa Junge. Such eagerness, alas, can't be shared, as it would have to consist of plot points best discovered on one's own. Suffice it to say that Junge's tale is as though Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had had a love child (though of course impossible then as now) and had given birth to a convoluted thriller in which nothing is as it seems at first, or even second, thought.

In Victorian London, pickpocket Sue Trinder (a superb Tracee Chimo) lives with a rough and rowdy bunch of fellow outcasts, from John Vroom (Luke Marinkovich) to Mr. Ibbs (Patrick Kerr) to Dainty Warren (Jo Mei), led by the Fagan-like Mrs. Sucksby (the marvelous Kristine Nielsen). Into this far-from-idyllic den of thieves arrives Richard “Gentleman” Rivers (Josiah Bania), with nefarious plans of his own involving a future heiress by the name of Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind). Other characters include Spiller (Lauren Modica), Charles (Zachary Infante), Mrs. Styles (Kate Levy), Dr. Christopher (Kingsley Leggs), and Marianne (Lenne Klingaman). How all these characters, and more (since several actors play multiple roles), interact will be left undisclosed here. Most of them are complex, with the struggles for power intense; only a few of the characters are simple. The
plot(s) are complex, too, and are a lot of fun as each one is revealed.

The Cast of "Fingersmith"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The impressive and versatile ensemble is a wonder and nearly impeccable (Bania needs to slow down his delivery so as to be more intelligible). Especially brilliant are the two female leads, Chimo and Lind. The creative team has conjured up fantastic Scenic Design by Christopher Acebo, impressive Costume Design by Deborah Dryden (with Lind's costumes by Carmel Dundon), crucial Lighting Design by Jen Schriever, eerily appropriate Sound Design and cello composition by Andre Pluess, and restrained but imaginative Video Design by Shawn Sagady. Acebo's revolving sets are especially awe-inspiring, from rowboats to carriages to instantaneous dissolves, but there is absolutely seamless work all around.

And that's about all one can say except to urge you to see this fascinating and surprising play while you can, as it's a masterful achievement on every level. Time and again you may find yourself comparing this work to that of Dickens. Where it diverges from the Dickensian model is in identifying anyone to root for, at least at first, even if you favor strong feminine characters and gender politics in general. In the printed version of her work, the playwright aptly quotes the late theologian/philosopher Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire”. Or, as Chardin also said, and will only be alluded to cryptically here: “Everything that rises must converge”.

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