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Theater Review:

SIMON CALLOW in "THE MYSTERY OF CHARLES DICKENS" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

It takes a measured, creative writer and a deft, selfless actor to turn the biographical one-person show format into a revelatory theatrical event interwoven with seamless psychological insight. Simon Callow – the British actor known for his work in such memorable films as "Shakespeare in Love," "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "A Room with a View" – stars in "The Mystery of Charles Dickens," an exhilarating dramatic merging of fact and fiction penned by Dickens’ biographer Peter Ackroyd, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

Callow, aided by Ackroyd’s sturdy and emotionally complex script, fills this elegant courtyard theater with what seem like hundreds of characters from the revered English writer’s prolific Industrial Revolution-era canon; the many facets of Dickens himself; and the grandiose and glowering rhythms of humanity. Under Patrick Garland’s quietly truthful direction, the malleable Callow can morph without skipping a beat from Oliver Twist to Miss Havisham to Bill Sikes to the tormented author himself.

Christopher Woods’ decidedly simple set consists of a leather study chair; a table draped with a gold-tasseled cloth; and a backdrop of intersecting gilt frames – lit with charcoal-gray gravitas by Nick Richlings.

The suggestiveness of this two-hour recreation of a life and its far-reaching art naturally sparks the imaginative impulses. It’s as if we’re paging through one of Dickens’ beloved classics rather than watching a play. And Callow, a master of charismatic understatement, never sets down that imaginary book even as he sips water with a seamless flourish.

In the least contrived of fashions, the writer juxtaposes Dickens the contradictory man with the multidimensionality of his characters – as well as Dickens’ famous ability to link comedy with tragedy (often in one extended sentence). Callow -- with his solid stance, evocative hand gestures and massive vocal range – allows all of these aspects and personae to emerge with grace and purpose.

This show is never about Simon Callow, the wondrously versatile actor; it’s about Charles Dickens and his little-known tragic life whose very blood and experience are woven into the fabric of his novels – many of which began as serialized stories in London newspapers. Moreover, "The Mystery of Charles Dickens" shows how the Victorian author poured not only himself but also the injustices of society into every one of his loving, brutal and blissfully eccentric characters. All Dickens needed to get the creative juices flowing was a name – like Pickwick, which he noticed on the side of a carriage. By starting with the impetus of something as personal as a name, Dickens inevitably spoke to the heart and soul of civilization.

Excerpts from "Great Expectations," "Bleak House," "Oliver Twist," "The Pickwick Papers," "A Tale of Two Cities," "A Christmas Carol" and the unfinished "Mystery of Edwin Drood" more than pepper this mesmerizing production. They reveal obscure, and still unsolvable, aspects of Dickens: a human rights activist who mistreated his family and later abandoned his wife and ten children; a man deeply entrenched in the horrific Industrial Revolution realities of his time yet obsessed with leading a "theatrical" life and even pursuing a stage career; a fearless hero who saved countless lives when, during one of his many book-reading tours, his train derailed, but who later developed paralyzing fears.

All of his characters were desperate and comforting voices speaking inside of him. And he gave them eternal life on paper.

The magic of storytelling hovers over this beautifully and intricately crafted piece of theater. Dickens, who was forced to work in a rat-infested blacking factory at the age of 12 when his father was sent to debtors’ prison, found solace in books. It was so empowering to hear many audience members discussing during intermission how they were inspired to re-read Charles Dickens’ novels. His legacy has been renewed – together with his sympathetic interest in human life and, subsequently, his belief in a world of endless possibilities.•

"The Mystery of Charles Dickens," starring Simon Callow, runs through December 23 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: $40-$52. Call 312-595-5600 or log onto www.chicagoshakes.com.

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