Much is made in the Coterie's program notes of the choice to perform the script as "story theater," which the notes define as a dramatic form that "combines the concept of traditional storytelling narrative with the theatrical convention of presenting a story through action and dialogue." How this differs from regular theater is hazy (the Unicorn's production of Side Man last season did the same thing but didn't make as much noise about it), but this cumbersome description parallels the fussy production, one that is at times artistically ambitious yet dramatically hollow.
Audience members need only look at set designer Gary Wichansky's floor to see a reflection of the play's overproduction; a mishmash of textures -- clay tiles, porcelain tiles, untreated wood, waxed wood -- is abstractly mapped out to represent different locations. The floor must have taken an amazing amount of work, but it just looks messy. Another example of how much the piece is overproduced is seen in Miss Havisham's lair. What appears to be a large turret actually hides her sitting room. It is encased in a gossamer shade, and before every one of her multiple scenes she must hoist it with a rope, then wrap the rope around a hook. It is exhausting just to describe.
The show follows the journey of Pip (Greg Jackson) from modest means to wealth and acclaim at the hands of a mysterious benefactor. His encounters along the road to utopia include a first love, Estella (Molly Jo McGuire, who is weirdly coiffed like Frida Kahlo for the second half of the show); the rich dowager, Miss Havisham (Kate La Ross, who cannot be the least bit menacing dressed like the Christmas Fairy Queen); and the escaped convict, Magwich (Chad Scheppner). Playing a host of other friends, foes and family are Michael Rice, Rafael Sardina, Kyndra Jones and Andrew Persinger.
The cast comprises students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City's elite master of fine arts program. Among them, Scheppner and Jackson have had the most success in making the transition to the city's professional stages. Scheppner's Orlando in last summer's As You Like It at the Shakespeare Festival was wildly entertaining, and Jackson was the emotional core of Side Man. It may not, then, be coincidental that they fare the best here. Unlike the inconsistent British accents of the actors' peers (which stand in the way of the words), their accents mostly make the text melodic. (Scheppner's Magwitch voice does become overbearing toward the end, but in his other role of Jaggers he's perfectly clipped.)
Despite Jeff Church's monumental effort, there's just too much to direct. Scenes play out with a mix of dialogue and narrative, and although the mix sometimes suffices, it more often veers toward the ludicrous. At the climax of a fight scene, after a knife clearly has been plunged into Scheppner's gut and he is lying prostrate on the floor, Jackson rushes to his side and tells us, "He has sustained serious injuries." Yeah, we know. This scene is impossible for an actor to play; it asks for heightened emotion that is broken up with exposition.
Scanning the entire production, one's eyes do alight on some noteworthy craftiness. Wichansky's set contains eerie faces etched into the base of the turret that provide more nuance than the text and, with the help of Art Kent's lighting design, Wichansky turns a hole in a platform into the glowing embers of a blacksmith's shop. Lisa Harper and Gregg Benkovich are dually credited with costume design; it too is hit and miss. Aside from Miss Havisham's wispy dress, there's a nice touch at her feet -- one foot is shod with period footwear and the other is shoeless, covered instead with a twisted stocking that makes her appear lame. When Pip arrives in London, Jackson goes literally wide-eyed, and sound designer David Kiehl flushes the room with the quick but impressive echo of horse hooves surrounding the young hero. Alas, these small coups grace the stage all too seldom.